How Should Local Governments Use American Rescue Plan Funds?

After over a year of the COVID-19 pandemic, many local and state government organizations have changed the ways they serve and communicate with their residents. With the need for many government services to move online and for clear crisis communications around the pandemic, agencies have looked at their online presence with a whole new perspective. They see and feel the vital need to move their community engagement online, but most have websites that don’t provide the functionality and friendliness that’s needed, or their current budget does not allow for new software.

If your agency is discussing an online public engagement platform that will invite more of your community’s voices than ever before, there’s a great opportunity to have it funded by the recently passed American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. The funds set aside for state and local aid within this Act can be used to purchase an online engagement platform.

See how local governments have used federal funding for online engagement.

What is the American Rescue Plan Act and How Are Funds Allocated?

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused US government organizations to experience major losses in revenue, but no reductions in the demand for services from the community. Meeting that demand, while so many people are staying at home, has been tough. There’s increased demand for online information, services and requests, as well as for direct resident communication. Recently, the US Government offered a lifeline to help ease these challenges.

The American Rescue Plan Act (ARP), signed into law on March 11, 2021, is the first pandemic-response stimulus bill since the CARES Act in March 2020 that provides direct funding to state and local governments. This new relief package provides $1.9 trillion in mandatory funding, program changes, and tax policies.

The deadline for funds to be expended is December 31, 2024, a much longer time period than previous bills. Local governments have more time to figure out how to spend the funds and can prioritize their needs.

Utilizing the Funds for Multi-Year Contracts

The longer deadline associated with this act will make it easier for local governments to use the funds for multi-year contracts, such as software expenditures. While there’s nothing in the legislation that forbids an agency from using funds for a contract going beyond the 2024 deadline, it will likely be up to government lawyers to obtain guidance from the US Treasury as to whether purchases can extend beyond the life of this funding. This is a good reason to get this funding early and lock in your contract to stay within the boundaries of the funding, just to be safe.

Using American Rescue Plan Act Funds for Digital Community Engagement

The Act outlines several areas that are eligible for the funds, and if your agency is going to apply for funds to be used on an online engagement platform such as EngagementHQ, you’ll want to be aware of how to best position yourself in your application.

Online Community Engagement: Increasing The Reach of Your Vital Communications

Online community engagement has steadily been evolving from a ‘nice-to-have’ feature of government to a ‘need-to-have,’ especially since the pandemic began. A robust, easy-to-use, and engaging online community platform increases how quickly a local government can reach the public with crucial information such as vaccination information, public health updates, and support. It allows the public to ask questions, to request help, and provides a way to reach people where they are with timely crisis/emergency communications.

Beyond the important applications of an online platform during the pandemic, an undeniable win-win for a local government and the community is the fact that online engagement makes engaging hard to reach groups easier, groups that can be missed by other forms of engagement, such as in-person meetings. According to Pew Research, in 2008, only 24% of Americans attended at least one town, local, or school meeting in the past year. An online engagement platform can reach thousands more community stakeholders eager to have their say. Our clients often see an upward of a 1000% increase in participation through digital-first community engagement efforts. With an online engagement platform, Parker, CO was able to reach close to 20% of their whole population through Let’s Talk Parker.

Community Engagement for Big-Picture Projects

Public engagement opens the door to involve and inform your community throughout the process of big-picture projects such as transit, water, sewer, or broadband infrastructure improvements (all areas that the ARP funding seeks to aid). You can gain better buy-in from residents for these comprehensive projects and minimize pushback further down the road.

The sky’s the limit with an online engagement platform and governments can find ways to use it to involve their own communities and consult stakeholders in areas such as mental health and substance abuse services; water and sewer infrastructure; education; public health; housing; and energy and environment, and much more.

How Local Governments Have Utilized Federal Funding for Online Engagement

The following are examples of local agencies that received funds from the 2020 CARES Act to fund their implementation of EngagementHQ and how they achieved better engagement results by bringing the conversation online.

City of Manhattan, Kansas

As was the case for most local governments, the pandemic put a spotlight on areas the City of Manhattan needed to change in terms of digital approach. In March 2020, the city had several large projects coming up that would involve public engagement including a housing study, new zoning and subdivision regulations, and redevelopment plans. Each project was put on hold during the first part of the pandemic, as the city was not set up to offer anything outside of in-person engagement.

When the CARES Act was announced, they saw an opportunity to fund a digital engagement platform that would allow them to carry on in new and better ways with their community engagement. They expressed the need for funding by detailing how the software would help them continue their public projects, safely and efficiently.

The City of Manhattan launched their site Engage MHK with plans to utilize it for the key community projects that were put on hold. Additionally, they plan to squeeze every bit of functionality out of the platform as possible and would like to use it for online applications for services such as zoning appeals, building permits, etc.

“We think EngagementHQ will do wonders for us in how we engage with our citizens,” said Chad Bunger, Assistant Director of Community Development, City of Manhattan, “It has really shifted our mindset in that we don’t have to have someone in a room to engage with them, we can do things differently.”

City of Aurora, Colorado

When the pandemic hit, and city hall closed, the former City of Aurora Manager of Special Projects, Michael Lawson, knew that online engagement was not only helpful in public communication, but it had suddenly become a necessity.

“It’s a way to further hear from your constituents, in a safe way, because we aren’t through this pandemic yet,” Michael stated. “You can hear from people, wherever they are, in an organized manner. They can tell you how best they feel economic recovery should look.”

The City of Aurora secured CARES Act funds and used a portion of the funding to implement their community platform, Engage Aurora.

Since 2019, Lawson sought to build a framework for the City of Aurora to standardize how the city engaged with the public on different types of projects. It was based on the International Association of Public Participation (IAP2) spectrum of engagement.

“EngagementHQ was a great tool for implementing the framework I was trying to build—that was its genesis with Aurora,” said Michael.

City of Woodland Park, Colorado

Now serving as the Acting City Manager with the City of Woodland Park, Michael Lawson also participated in the purchase of EngagementHQ with this municipality as well. In late 2020, the city was beginning their consultation for a 2030 Comprehensive Plan and local officials needed a way to reach community members for their ideas and opinions. Their community site, What’s Up Woodland Park, launched with the help of CARES funds, gave a voice to a much larger portion of the community during the community visioning process than they would have been able to reach without EngagementHQ.

“People are busy. This is a city from which many residents commute into a larger city, and most don’t have time for in-person meetings. An online engagement site allows them to weigh in, on their time,” Michael stated.

City of Tigard, Oregon

The City of Tigard provides an example of how governments can create a local grant awards program for local businesses (which also falls under the ‘supporting local businesses’ category in the American Rescue Plan): Tigard, OR Supports Local Businesses through Economic Uncertainty with Online Engagement.

Tips for Securing ARP Funding for Your Community

Here are the components you will need to gather for a winning application:

  • Basic organization description: map out clearly how a community engagement platform allows you to accomplish your organization’s goals
  • Statement of need: Describe how software such as EngagementHQ will meet a need that has been exacerbated by the pandemic
  • Project description: Describe what major projects you want to accomplish and how EngagementHQ could help you get those projects over the finish line
  • Plan for software deployment and implementation: Have a plan for internal organizational adoption of the community software
  • Anticipated project benefits: Minimizing project pushback, creating more efficiencies within the community engagement process, and ensuring that local policies reflect the desires of stakeholders could all be potential benefits

Public engagement software will benefit the public by creating community connections and empowering their voices. To better articulate the efficiencies and long-term benefits that engagement software can bring to your entire community, read our ebook on assessing the value of online engagement. The way the City of Aurora stated their need for the software was: Online engagement tools for the city to assess the community’s most pressing needs during the COVID-19 crisis.

Focus on the outcome. Community members wildly benefit from having more direct access to their local leaders. Advocate for your project early and quickly so you can hit the ground running when the funds arrive!

Looking for more guidance on how to spend ARP funding effectively? Register for a free webinar with Nick Kittle, best-selling author of Sustainovation: Building Sustainable Innovation in Government One Wildly Creative Idea at a Time, and Mark Funkhouser, Former Kansas City Mayor and Auditor on the do’s and don’ts of stimulus spending.

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