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Public Engagement: The Core of Reinventing Government Service Delivery in Sonoma County

Case Story

Community: Sonoma County

Population: 491,829


In an effort to adapt to the changing demographics of its community, Sonoma County developed a comprehensive strategic plan to ensure that the emerging local needs were better understood and met. By incorporating public engagement practices on an ongoing basis, the county has been able to form public-private partnerships and receive community input which led to significant changes of service delivery systems that address the health needs of low income, Latino and aging adult populations.

With the vision of creating a cultural change in approach to public service delivery, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors asked the Department of Health Services to take the lead on developing best practices to meet these changing demographics. The project established both an internal cross-departmental process and an external advisory committee process. The two groups worked in parallel to explore how the county could use public engagement to deploy existing resources as well as leverage community energy and resources to better meet the needs of the county’s residents. These changes are occurring without substantial increases in budgeting for the public engagement staffing or activities.

Program Highlights

  • The county’s strategic plan authorized a study to update and expand the county leadership’s understanding of the changing demographic makeup of their community and how best to engage these sectors of the community.
  • The county established an internal project with a diverse set of department managers given a mandate to match public engagement with the policy and service responsibilities of those departments. An internal advisory committee partnered with outside consultants to create a set of recommendations in a report that provided a framework and best practices for incorporating effective public engagement into the county’s work.
  • Sonoma County officials recruited an external advisory committee made up with leaders who had significant reach into targeted segments of the community (aging, Latino and low income) to provide input and perspective.The county employed a respected consulting firm to conduct the research about best practices to reach the high priority demographics, ensuring adequate capacity to support participants of the project and remove any departmental territorial issues that might have been obstacles.
  • As a result of these efforts, a new paradigm of service delivery and community partnerships is emerging within a wide range of county department programs, including new cross-departmental programs to address pressing public problems.

Lessons Learned

  • Set clear goals by collectively envisioning the desired end state before starting work and stay focused on meeting the needs of both the external community and internal organizational audiences.
  • Develop an up-to-date demographic and socioeconomic understanding of your community and what the needs of the community are.
  • Develop a plan to elicit ongoing conversations with the desired segments of the community.
  • Develop an external advisory committee (supplemented with key informant interviews) and connect with basic service providers and staff about community needs and resources.
  • Emphasize that the approach of addressing community needs through direct engagement isn’t a new task or extra burden for overworked staff. Instead, more can be accomplished by using partnerships and dialogue in the communities the county already serves.
  • Come to terms with a new paradigm. Technology offers access to information that requires additional responsiveness from local governments. Public engagement can surface solutions and resources in ways that traditional service models have not been able to leverage.

Rest of the Story

Sonoma County’s Board and department managers have moved from the traditional public service delivery model to a strikingly different philosophy on the role of government. They have come to the conclusion that a top-down mindset does not always work when considering how best to deliver services. This change in philosophy can be traced to Sonoma County’s strategic planning process in 2007. County leaders and staff began with two key questions: What does the community need? How best do those needs get met?

Sonoma County’s population demographics had been shifting significantly. The proportion of Hispanic/Latino populations within Sonoma County had been expanding, growing from 17 percent in 2000 to a projected 31% of the overall population by 2020. The older population (ages 60+) in Sonoma County experienced a 200% increase from 2000 to 2010 and projections showed that this trend will continue into the foreseeable future. Additionally, the proportion of Sonoma County residents living below 200% of the Federal Poverty Level increased, from 24% in 2006 to 30% in 2010.

Through the strategic planning process, county decision makers—Board and program leads–started to understand the county’s emerging demographic makeup more clearly. A study provided updated population data and mapped out a number of recommended steps to better align the county’s work with their community. The Board of County Supervisors and the Department of Health Services became champions for building capacity within the county structures. They focused on the entire range of county programs across all departments and asked themselves how the county could better serve their community.

The county created an internal advisory committee to address these questions as well as to spark cultural change. This group approached the project with the focus on how their programs could use existing resources to better meet the community’s needs. The mantra became “it’s on us”, which helped set expectations about how to look for new solutions and change. The internal advisory group involved departments representing a wide spectrum of services, including Probation, Human Services, Parks and Permit and Resource Management.

Additionally, the project helped form an external advisory group, made up of leaders with particular reach into key community sectors that had surfaced as underrepresented in the demographic study: the aging, Latinos and residents with low income. This external group also suggested various community leaders at all levels who could add to the county’s understanding of ways to partner with local community organizations, including those with contracts with the county and those who played a different kind of partnership role.  All of these external sources provided critical input in how to better connect and serve the needs of these key consumers of county services.

  • The project benefited from the County Supervisors’ support, who approved the request to hire a consultant team to facilitate the process and support the research on best practices. The internal advisory committee worked with consultants because of several factors:The project needed capacity to facilitate the process with senior managers within the county and conduct desired research.
  • Consultants made individual county department turf a non-issue, as they came from outside the county structure to manage the process and oversee the report to the Supervisors; and
  • The county could tap respected firms with proven track records of success.

After completing a report that provided a framework and best practices for incorporating effective public engagement into the county’s work, the internal advisory group briefed the Board Supervisors on their recommendations to infuse public engagement into their program and service delivery process. The report was well received and earned the County Administrator’s support. The Administrator tasked the county’s Office of Volunteers to help carry out the recommendations in support of the participating departments.

  1. Sonoma County has now formed an agency-wide coordinating body to share and learn from each other. The purpose of the group is three fold:Gain a general understanding of what community engagement does or could do within county programs;
  2. Determine when to best leverage community engagement;
  3. Understand how to use community engagement in every day work.

The Deputy County Administrator convenes the group and oversees further progress on the recommendations.

At the department level, change based on this effort is taking shape. The Human Services Department has adopted a framework on any outreach that they conduct on their programming. The county is creating an “Office of Cultural Competency” and is using public engagement to build cross-discipline initiatives that address key public needs, such as early child development, education and workforce training for children in Sonoma County. Known as “Cradle to Career”, this community engagement effort has the county deeply involved in helping meet the long term needs of the community’s children with other groups/agencies. The project is in the process of cataloging every county public service and program that touches a child from womb to going to school to workforce and seeking to identify the gaps.

Sonoma County puts a great deal of information about its programs on the county website, demonstrating a commitment to showing information and allowing more input through more interactive features on their website.

They see this as part of the spectrum of necessary communication – sharing information and helping people know what is going on. The other end of this spectrum is actively mobilizing community to address their needs. In order to sustain this effort, the County has made a commitment to repeat and learn from the experience through an ongoing internal advisory process.

Resources to Learn More

Sonoma County Department of Health Strategic Plan

Sonoma County Community Engagement Framework and Best Practices Report

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