Our systems for engagement are failing to support effective decision-making and problem-solving, and trust between citizens and government is at an all-time low. This is partly because the legal framework for public engagement is badly outdated – it consists largely of laws that were passed before the Internet was invented, and the public meetings, hearings and town halls convened by governments often leave both residents and officials confused and frustrated. The pandemic is making it even more apparent that the laws on engagement are obsolete, since official bodies that must legally meet face-to-face in order to make decisions are unable to operate.
“Framing the work is really hard,” said Liz Grenat, Executive Director of the Community Justice and Mediation Center (CJAM) in Bloomington Indiana. “We want to talk about health and increase engagement around health and health-related policy, but we have to fully understand the landscape first.”
CJAM serves Monroe County in Bloomington, Indiana through a series of programs focused on mediation, education and restorative justice. As a recipient of the Community Voices for Health grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which aims to build stronger engagement infrastructure between communities and policymakers, especially marginalized and underserved communities, CJAM is expanding its reach and impact and building networks as it does so.
“We are beginning by analyzing the current state of public engagement in Monroe County—not just in health but with a wider lens,” said Grenat. “We are looking at health assessment plans and policy-oriented projects, at what worked and what did not work. Part of our engagement scan is to interview individuals on how decisions are made and build a repository of engagement best practices. All this is about how to build better networks with an educated approach.” Public Agenda, as a partner with Altarum on the Community Voices for Health initiative, is providing technical support with assessments and engagement work.
In Indiana, Community Voices for Health in Monroe County will establish new ways of strengthening engagement law and practice. The project will allow CJAM, Bloomington Health Foundation, Indiana University, Indiana Minority Health Coalition, IU Health, Accelerate Indiana Municipalities and other core partners to develop and test a local model for more inclusive and deliberative public engagement, so that community members’ voices are part of decisions about health care, social services and public health systems.
Lawyers, mediators, facilitators and problem-solvers from each organization are collaborating to explore innovative practices for outreach and participation, particularly for reaching historically underserved and under resourced populations, who have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic and whose voices that have not been adequately heard in our communities.
“We want to understand how to talk about the social determinants of health,” said Grenat. “We have to understand what are the core issues that are really impacting health in the communities we seek to engage. To do this we know we have to build strong partnerships at the local level to bring in different perspectives and backgrounds. This goes for those who bring research and academic knowledge, and those from the community who bring their own life experiences to the table.”
The second phase of the Community Voices for Health initiative in Indiana will look at how to scale up these efforts. CJAM will develop resources for communities in the local area but also for those outside of Monroe County. For Grenat and others on the project, the resources and toolkits should be versatile and useful for a variety of types of communities throughout Indiana. “CJAM’s and our partners’ work on Community Voices for Health ultimately builds capacity,” said Grenat. “We have to make a clear and lasting path, especially for those who voices are often not heard.”