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Making it Count: Civic Participation and Census Success in Philadelphia

March 8, 2021

The Constitutionally-mandated U.S. Census has significant economic and political implications, including determining how many representatives each state will have in Congress for the next decade and the amount of federal funding communities receive for roads, schools and other social services. That’s why the city of Philadelphia chartered Philly Counts 2020, an organization formed from a team of innovative researchers, well-connected activists and civic leaders, to promote Philadelphians’ participation in the 2020 Census. Public Agenda helped Philly Counts tell the story of their work to engage Philadelphians in the 2020 Census in a report released by the City of Philadelphia in January 2021. 

The Philly Counts 2020 team was brought together by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Office with a mission to not only count Philadelphians but also to emphasize to communities the importance of civic participation. Beginning in 2018, Philly Counts worked to develop a strategic plan to use data-driven techniques to coordinate public engagement in the Census, especially among  historically under-counted communities. Philly Counts planned major events and gatherings to bring people together to get counted.  

Then the pandemic hit. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, Philadelphia and the Philly Counts team had to adapt quickly to the emerging health and economic challenges that the pandemic created. They had to reorganize and revamp their plans to develop COVID-safe engagement activities. With a mission to engage historically and systemically under-counted populations and neighborhoods, Philly Counts capitalized on the strength of its team and its coalition. Philly Counts reached out to and utilized trusted messengers including nonprofit organizations, multicultural associations, and community groups in order to promote their mission. 

Philly Counts 2020’s work culminated in a report outlining their community engagement work, their data-driven approach to reaching historically under-counted neighborhoods, and their thorough, comprehensive and multifaceted field coalition-building and engagement with partner organizations, supporters, and leaders. The report provides recommendations for the future of the Census and the Philly Counts office.  

Public Agenda assisted Philly Counts with preparing the report, including: 

  • Supporting Philly Counts in developing moderator guides for focus groups with community partners about their experience with the Census and the community engagement process, as well as providing guidance for effectively conducting focus groups 
  • Supporting Philly Counts in developing a survey of community partners about their experience with the Census and the community engagement process 
  • Interviewing Philly Counts staff members and providing an internal memo about staff members’ views on the community engagement process, including how it worked, challenges that the process presented, how they were overcome, and lessons for how to improve the process in the future
  • Reviewing qualitative and quantitative data analysis conducted by Philly Counts to identify key findings and draw conclusions about the outcomes and implications for future community engagement 
  • Coordinating a media and communications plan to promote Philly Counts’ work and report, suggesting ways for effective dissemination and media communications   

Philly Counts’ implications for future community engagement include: starting work earlier to mobilize coalitions and trusted messengers; addressing inequitable access to wifi and other digital technologies; and contending with the deep and inherent systemic and institutionalized racial histories that can impact people’s relationships with city government. 

When discussing the future of the Philly Counts office, staff members pointed to the immense and solid coalition they built with other members of the Philadelphia community and said that it would be a waste to not use that infrastructure for other, similar projects, such  as addressing vaccine hesitancy and historical mistrust of the medical community. 

Public Agenda is grateful to have been  part of such an important project that supports equitable community engagement in the City of Philadelphia.   

Their full report can be found here.

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Erin McNally

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