Engaging the Community to Serve the Community: The Providence Rescue Plan
By Joshua Avila, MPA, Deputy Chief Operating Officer, City of Providence, Office of Mayor Jorge O. Elorza
I joined the City of Providence in the fall of 2019 as a Mayoral Fellow, optimistic and eager to advance a career in public administration. That initial optimism and enthusiasm quickly transitioned, however, into uncertainty and anxiety as the world drastically changed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
What would we do? How would we serve our constituents during a once-in-a-generation crisis that had a direct impact on all the residents of Providence and, indeed, the entire United States? How would we lead the city into the future, when there was no certainty as to what that future would hold and forecasts were riddled with doubt?
We finally breathed a sigh of relief when President Biden signed the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) into law almost exactly one year from the day the country shut down in response to the pandemic. Under ARPA, the City of Providence would receive $166 million in city and county funds that needed to be allocated within three years. But how would that money be spent? The biggest lesson we learned in Providence was that we needed to involve our residents in that decision-making process.
Here’s the story of how that came to pass.
The City's initial round of funding, a total allocation of $43 million, was announced on July 16, 2021. The uses to which this first infusion of cash would be targeted involved a a multi-step process: department directors established lists of high-priority projects, the mayor's office and Providence city council created a list of high-priority projects, and all projects were reviewed through two public meetings: a City Council Finance Committee meeting and an open meeting as part of the City Council budget hearing process.
The proposal was transformed into an ordinance, passed by the City Council, and signed into law by Mayor Elorza.
As projects from the initial allocation moved forward, discussion soon turned to the remaining ARPA dollars. As efforts to allocate the remaining funds began, our team recognized the importance of emphasizing the need to serve rather than steer the public, a notion that was well-explained by Janet and Robert Denhardt in their 2014 book "The New Public Service: Serving Not Steering".
To best serve the public, we needed to engage and listen to our constituents - how did they think the city should allocate the rest of the ARPA dollars to better serve their communities and families?
We established the Providence COVID-19 Recovery and Resiliency Task Force. Fourteen community leaders and advocates comprised the Task Force, which began meeting in July 2021. Their missions were to "balance a long and short term equitable and impactful deployment of stimulus relief funds in the City of Providence" as well as to "provide guidance and make recommendations to the city government" about the use of the $166 million received by Providence as part of the State and Local Fiscal Recovery Fund (SLFRF).
All of the Task Force meetings were open to the public to ensure transparency and accountability, critical elements of governance. The Task Force ultimately completed their report in November 2021, which was submitted to both the Mayor and City Council and included the Task Force’s recommendations on how to best allocate the remaining ARPA funding.
The Elorza Administration utilized these recommendations to structure the allocation proposal for the remaining $123,769,438, with an emphasis on equity and resiliency in all funding categories.
In addition to establishing the Task Force, the City of Providence hosted five Community Conversations with partner organizations that attracted 285 participants, two Business Roundtables that attracted 64 attendees, and an additional 88 submitted proposals from the community. The Elorza Administration also created and widely shared a public feedback survey that the public could access in eight languages, which asked how survey respondents thought the City should allocate the remaining ARPA dollars. The survey categories fit into the following four buckets:
Youth and Education (Youth and Community Investments)
Inclusive and Thriving Communities (Arts, Culture, and Tourism, Racial Equity, Sustainability, Housing and Homelessness)
Jobs and Economic Opportunity (Business and Economic Development)
A City That Works (City Services and Infrastructure)
The survey initially garnered around 500 responses, but after analyzing the data, our team recognized that responses were highly concentrated in some areas of the city and were not representative of our city's actual demographics. To make the data sample more representative and ensure an equitable process and outcome, the city launched a targeted outreach effort of door-knocking in the ZIP codes that were hit hardest by COVID-19 and provided $25 gift cards to individuals in these areas to incentivize participation. With these efforts, the total number of respondents rose to 1,111.
The City of Providence rose to the challenge and met the moment of serving the community by listening to it. My colleagues expressed compassion and were guided by a sense of determination that empowered them to not just be public servants, but community advocates pushing for equity, transparency, and accountability in municipal government.
The contents of this guest column reflect those of the author, and not necessarily those of Barrett and Greene, Inc.