In Part 3 of our series on up and coming innovative city, Lancaster, PA. Olivia from our team discusses how to promote more equitable governance with Jess King, Patrick Hopkins and Sharon Allen-Spann.
In this episode, Jess King, Patrick Hopkins and Sharon Allen-Spann from Lancaster share how their roles are promoting more equality in government, from expanding language access to hiring practices that support more equitable governance from within.
Featured government: Lancaster, PA
Jess King, Chief of Staff
Patrick Hopkins, Business Administrator
Sharon Allen-Spann, Leadership Development and Diversity Manager
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Welcome to the Govlaunch podcast. Govlaunch is the Wiki for local government innovation and on this podcast, we're sharing the stories of local government innovators and their efforts to build smarter governments. I'm Lindsay Pica-Alfano, co-founder of Govlaunch and your host. Today, Olivia from our team continues our series on up-and-coming innovative city, Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Two weeks ago, mayor Sorace came on to talk about the work to shift more of their focus on equity and sound government. In this episode, Jess King, Patrick Hopkins and Sharon Allen-Spann from Lancaster share how their roles are promoting more equitable governance. So let's now turn to the team in Lancaster to learn more about their work and hopefully get some tips for how to employ some of these strategies for more equitable approach to engagement and beyond in your own local government.
Thank you all for being here. Can you quickly introduce yourself and share a bit about your roles?
Yep. I'm Jess King. I am chief of staff and I've been with the city for a little over two years now.
And I'm Patrick Hopkins. I'm the city business administrator and I've been with the city since January of 2006.
My name is Sharon Allen-Spann I’m the leadership development and diversity manager. And I've been with the city since 2013.
Perfect. So Jess, as chief of staff, what would you say has been your biggest objective in Lancaster these past few years?
That's a hard question to answer because there's always a million things going on. Um, but I'd say that the number one thing for me, that's really formed the underpinning of, of my work and I think how to support the mayor and her work has been to really focus on building an equitable environment in Lancaster, thinking about how we do government, uh, in the most equitable ways that we can. And then looking for ways that that connects to all the areas that I have opportunity and influence in my position and ways to support the mayor through her work and her public narrative as well and city communications at large as we really dig into the question of how we build a stronger and more equitable Lancaster block by block. So for me coming back to the foundations of equity, um, that's why I came to do this work in the first place. And 2020 was a huge reminder about how far we as a country have to go on the issues of equity. Uh, so really great. Um, in some ways, all the action and clarity for me personally, and I think for the administration to keep focusing our efforts on equity and to be really specific about what that can look like going forward.
Building on what you've shared, are there some specific examples of things you've done to help foster more open, transparent communication that other local governments may be able to replicate?
Yeah, you know, I think one of the, one of the things that 2020 really helped our communications efforts has been dovetailing communications and neighborhood engagement, uh, the whole time. So when COVID hit, we really tried to focus on how to use communication, um, in the most strategic ways to impact our residents by sharing information, having calls to action, um, and really thinking about it, ruining engagement lens with our residents as our primary audience. So some key things that we've tried to do around, uh, open and transparent communication, but then the language access program for the city that, um, has really been led out of Milzy's department and neighborhood engagement. But that's really framed a lot of the work that we do try to be more proactive in our communications, not just sharing like the news, oftentimes like bad news. It's about actually sharing good news and ways that people can be involved in the city and through activities or programs.
They launched the Engage Lancaster platform so that folks can actually see and engage in different platforms and projects and have their voices be heard. And we obviously moved towards having public meetings be available via zoom because everything needed to go to virtual platform, but making sure that residents had access to public meetings and information about city business in all the ways that we could share. We started doing a weekly Facebook live with the mayor and making sure that she was engaging with the constituents through that platform, making sure that residents had information and access to the information that we have. Um, so that really started with public health, but it pivoted and we've added a lot of other content to make sure that residents in the absence of being able to do town hall meetings or in-person neighborhood meetings, trying to have different platforms like that.
Those are some of the things that come to mind. We tried to use 2020 as a space where, you know, the silver linings of COVID have helped us hone the tools and resources that we have to respond better to what our community needs in an unprecedented time. I feel proud of what we've done this past year. And I want to move that bar up.
I love that access to information has been at the heart of your work. And I'm thinking about the bigger picture. When we talk about sound government, what does this mean to your team in Lancaster?
So when we talk about sound government, um, I automatically go to thinking about equity because I think, you know, there's two ways we could talk about this. One is about the core work of the city, what we do, and how we communicate like the basic functions of public safety, public works, you know, the things that people don't even really think about, unless something goes wrong with them. And like how folks can know that those things work. That's an ongoing process. The other piece that I'd rather focus on today is really around when we talk about sound government and our specific vision of creating a stronger and more equitable Lancaster, how we start looking at what different departments in the city do as it relates to equity and equitable development.
So, um, last summer in response to the murder of George Floyd, uh, we did a lot of work of looking at the city city operations, wanting to look beyond just the police bureau and ways that we could see, you know, within HR, within economic development, within neighborhood engagement, uh, within the mayor's office, within administration, what are the other areas that we could really look at and say, how do we take this moment as a real call to action around the tools and resources that we have as a city and as leaders around how to use what's available to us, what's in our hands to make a difference as it relates to the questions of building a more equitable Lancaster. So one of the big areas was around who works for the city, what that looks like.
And I think Sharon's going to talk more about that, but how do we build a workforce that looks more like our city? I should take a step back and actually frame this in that we have the privilege of serving a small city that's super innovative, super creative, super connected, but it's also a city that has majority people of color. And a lot of people, I think, who worked for the city or others, maybe who've been in the city, don't know that. Don't know how demographics have changed over time and aren't necessarily thinking about the city in its true character and like who we are as a community. So I feel like it's really important to keep centering ourselves in that. And to remember as public servants, we work for the city, we work for the residents who live here, pay us, who pay their taxes in different ways and essentially fund our salaries.
And we are responsible to them and need to be responsive to what they ask us for and how we respond as a unit of government to a changing community, feels like an incredible privilege and, um, an opportunity to, to really raise the bar. We've looked at how we hire to build a more reflective workforce that looks like our city. How do we do economic development in a way that is equitable and looking at the concerns of a broader group of not just businesses equal, how we address policies in different departments that could be public safety. A lot of the policy work this past year has been focused on public safety, but there's also been some stuff around procurement and bidding and things that create more equitable, um, baselines, so that we're, we're looking at the rules of the game to make sure that we are doing everything within our power to, to build a more equitable structure. I'm really excited about what Sharon has to say, because there's so much about how we show up as a city, as an employer, as a team of employees with over 500 employees to really influence this conversation and live it out, not just have it be words on a page or ideals, but like how do we embed this in culture and in teamwork and in hiring and practices to make sure that it actually means something, it makes a difference at the end of the day.
I really liked your point on how government is both responsible and also responsive to its residents. Thinking about the golden thread of equity in your work, how do you feel your communication strategies actually tie back to Lancaster's efforts to deliver more equitable and sound government?
One of the things that's really been a silver lining in 2020 was building out the platform for engage Lancaster and think about how we can put different projects in the public eye with information, and most importantly, an opportunity for residents to share their perspective about that particular project to share their ideas, their insights, their suggestions, for how to make it better, their ways of noting and lodging their priorities in something that is being done with public dollars. So it's really this idea that, um, you know, that good government is transparent, participatory, and engage Lancaster, especially during a time of COVID and when we can't meet in person is a platform where folks can see the work of their city, and engage in it and make sure that it reflects their priorities.
We're just scratching the surface and just starting that process of thinking about all the different things that we could add to the platform. One of the things that I learned pretty early on coming into this work is that when you have a high standard for communications, and you're doing this in the public sector, one of the challenges that that bar is always going to rise. So you set that bar, you get more people engaged, more people see what's going on, and they will have more concerns, more questions, and you'll end up drawing more input. It's a blessing and it's a challenge to make sure that we're making sure that that input gets where it needs to go. And I was also tended and stewarded in ways that facilitate strong relationships and meaningful engagement. So there we're just scratching the surface. And I think we feel it going and going in and going in terms of, um, what that engagement looks like and what all kinds of projects would put on there to make sure that people have access to important information and have an opportunity to make sure their voices are heard.
Now that we've set the stage, I want to move to you, Sharon and Patrick. As project leads, if you will, I'd love to dive into some of the more specific work you're doing in Lancaster. Sharon, let's start with you.
Thank you. And like Jess, our focus around diversity, equity and inclusion, really have given us a renewed focus on the work that we're doing externally for our residents and our customers. And also now being reflective about our workforce and what we need to do to create an equitable environment for our workforce as well. So when I think about, diversity, equity and inclusion, one of the things that's really important is about being reflective. It's very easy for each of us to come up with a solution to a problem that gets presented to us. But what we are um really attempting to do is to take the time to be reflective about who we are, where we've been and where we want to go. And so we're spending a good amount of our time really on examining the data that exists around our workforce as an example.
When we think about our hiring practices, one of the ways that we are being reflective and looking at data is looking at the number of applications we receive, let's say for a public safety position. Actually examining where, the applicants are, where do they reside currently? What are their demographics? Who are we attracting? Um, are we attracting our residents versus are we attracting individuals who live outside of our city, but also want to serve us as well? And so in that process, we are making certain that if, um, the demographics of our city are not showing up in our applicant pool, then we're being more deliberate about where we're actually, um, posting our positions and maybe the way that we post our positions needs to change, right? Maybe some particular demographics need more of a high touch job posting versus just the standard, put it on our website.
And so we are trying to be mindful of who we serve and who we actually are inviting to work. So that's one way that we're being reflective about our hiring practices. Another way we're being reflective is in thinking about when we have an open position is to stop and look at who actually is on the team where the opening exists. Looking at that, those demographics and determining like, um, who's on the team, what skills do the team members have currently and how might the team benefit from a new type of skill. Determine what's the skillset we're missing instead of just doing a general posting. So we're being reflective about the team. What's, what's the goal in the next five or 10 years, and then who are the right people to be part of that work. And then we get to the, so what does the job description look like, right? How do we describe a job in a way that invites people to apply for the job? More often than not our language is very technical in human resources. Yes, we want to make certain that we manage our risk, that we are compliant with all the federal state and local laws and sometimes when we focus so much on compliance, we actually exclude voices. So we're being inequitable, but not on purpose, right? The goal has always been to make certain that the city remains in compliance. And we're just being more mindful of that. Now, how does our language exclude others?
And then how can we rewrite the language? So we invite people to be part of that talent pool that we want to attract and retain. So those are a couple of things. The other piece that I would say is that we are looking at employee engagement from the time we are recruiting through the time an individual retires or moves on to their next career opportunity. So what we do know is that there's like this high touch at the beginning when you're recruited and then somehow, like when you get into the work, it's almost like, okay, thanks for being here. You know, you've shown up every day. But what we want to do is build the engagement that continues from the time that we recruit someone, building an onboard process that helps new employees, understand our culture and invites them to help us build out that culture going forward. In addition, what we're looking at is leveraging the talent that we already have on staff, because sometimes when you start a new project, it's almost like you assume that those who are here aren't part of the solution, but in fact, they truly are. And so we'll be leveraging the talent that we have to help us understand how to better build an equitable workforce.
So really loved how you shared Sharon, how the equity journey, doesn't just start at the application process or end when someone's been onboarding, how it really is start to finish. And you're weaving all of that in and following the data as well. And being really candid, smaller local governments may be a bit dismissive of a role like this really focused on building the equity of a workforce and making sure that it's diverse, especially considering that they're already wearing multiple hats and there's limited budgets that we're working with. So what I want to remind our listeners of right now is Lancaster is actually a mid-sized city with roughly 60,000 residents. So these jobs are not so far fetched or out of reach, as one might think, especially when you have such multiplying benefits of having a diverse workforce that truly reflects the residents that the city is looking to serve. So Sharon would love for you to talk more to this point and in your own words, share why this is so important for all local governments to consider and why we need to really be weaving in equity in all of the workforce development from start to finish.
One of the things that I would recommend to anyone who's beginning this journey is to really look at the work that you're already doing and use that as your starting point. Often we have new projects that come on board and it's in an addition to, right, it's that one more task that gets added to your plate, but in fact, what makes this work so important is that we weave it into the work that's already happening. So we're already hiring people. What we're asking is for people to take a step back and think more deliberately about that hiring practice. When we are selecting individuals who are going to be promoted into leadership positions, just being more deliberate about how do we support individuals that we want to help lead this organization. So what I would say around this diversity equity and inclusion work is this is not new. This is the work, and it's really about how do we embed it in what we're already doing, because there's no way that the average employee can add a new task. It's if I can refine the task, if I can think about what questions do I ask myself when I'm making my decisions, that's how we get to build equity without it overwhelming the system.
Really sound advice. Patrick, you've been involved in quite a few projects spanning homelessness engagement and a citywide language access program as well. Can you speak to some of this work in more detail for us?
Sure, as Jess mentioned earlier, Milzy Carrasco who's our director of neighborhood engagement was really the leading force on our language access program. But I can sort of speak to it from a 30,000 foot level, if you will. We're a city with a large percentage of Spanish speakers, uh, with a significant population from Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic and, and a whole host of other central and south American countries. It's certainly well known within our area that Spanish is the majority second language in Lancaster, but we also have a school district, which is both the city andLancaster township neighboring municipality, where they have thousands of students where English is not the first language spoken at home.
And they estimate that they have something in the neighborhood of 50 languages from around the world that are represented by students in the school district of Lancaster. So those are our residents and those are the folks we're providing services to. The language access program was really focused on that reality that if we are to provide services to the broad range of residents that we have to provide some tools, both for our residents, but also for city staff to use to communicate with those residents. It's not enough simply to say, well, we had a public meeting and nobody showed up. If we're not inviting residents to those public meetings, or so the engage Lancaster platform, or, you know, some of the other resources we have to engage our public and also helping to bridge that communication gap between city staff or some of our partners and our residents whose first language might not be English, we're not really providing services to all of our residents. So one of the most visible pieces of language access program, that Milzy worked on with city staff and some other partners is a language line. Your listeners won't be able to see this, but we have a little card we all have access to, or on our desktops that is a language line access. So if we have a resident who calls or, or perhaps walks into city hall for, for services and English, isn't their first language. We can try to identify what that language is and connect with a translator over the phone. And we've had city staff in our police bureau within the fire bureau here in city hall who have used that language line very successfully.
And it just makes for a much more comfortable engagement between city staff and the resident. The resident can feel much more comfortable in their native language talking about the issue that they may be bringing the question that they may have. And so that language line has really bridged the gap. There is a lot more work to be done. Translation of documents is an ever and ever going project. Sharon talked about some of the language within human resources that might be used in a, uh, sort of technical language within a job description, but we have applications for, uh, housing rehabilitation loans and things like that, which also might include some technical language or building permit applications, things like that.
And so translation of those documents is also one of the projects that we have included in the language access program. We are a certified welcoming city. We got that designation in 2019. The BBC at one point called us the refugee capital of the world where we've welcomed more refugees per capita than any other community in the United States. And so as soon as they refugee comes, the United States and becomes a city resident, they are our constituent. We need to be providing them with services. And so that language access program, and this really is sort of an iterative program. We were doing some things that are working, we're doing other things that might not work so well, and we have to sort of keep experimenting with it and see where it will take us.
What seems to tie all of your work is a strong user centric approach, whether the user is a resident or even the job applicant. On top of which you seem to also adopt an innovative approach in all that you do. Patrick, as the lead for the water utility fund, you seem to have a lot of various projects and innovations going on. I'd love to learn more about how these actually ended up coming under your umbrella of work in the first place.
That's a good question. How that came under my umbrella. So I started within my department in administrative services were really sort of the internal service arm for city government. So my department is made up of the bureau of human resources, information technology, our treasury office, and our accounting office. And then I also have oversight generally speaking over the entire city budget. So basically everything that deals with humans and money is sort of in my department per view, and in the water utility fund one of the issues that was highlighted as we were moving through a number of different projects was the reality that we're. So we own our own water and sewer systems. And our water system is actually significantly larger than just the city of Lancaster. We provide a water service to somewhere in the neighborhood of 110 or 120,000 population in the city, and then in the surrounding suburbs and as a water utility and or sewer utility, I mean, those are essentially businesses of the city of Lancaster.
So we obviously have an interest in providing the service high quality water service and wastewater services and having our customers pay for those services. The other reality is that we have a high poverty rate within the city of Lancaster. And so we have customers you know, for whom a quarterly water bill, especially if there's a leak or something like that at their property. And they get an unusually high bill are faced with a bill that they can't pay. And the, you know, the typical process for collection is warning notices and things like that. And then ultimately service termination, which is a sort of a, you know, whether you're a gas utility, electric utility, or water utility, that is part of the collection process. But the other piece of that is that when we terminate water service, that also makes a property inhabitable. In addition to a poverty issue within the city, we also have a homelessness issue within the city and people who are sort of constantly on edge of losing their home, whether it's a rental property or they're a homeowner.
So we created the utility assistance program in the 2020 budget. We funded it with $50,000 combined from the water and sewer budgets and partnered with a community organization here in Lancaster that helps to administer the same type of program for the local gas and electric utilities. And those dollars are intended to basically go to the person or the family who has fallen on hard times, has a difficulty paying a bill, and we're not paying that water bill may result in service termination, which then may lead to them losing access to that housing. The other benefit of this is that this organization doesn't just fund that particular bill, but they bring that family or that individual into their navigation program and help them with things like working through their finances, trying to budget so that they can avoid this circumstance in the future. So it's not just dealing with the issue at the moment and helping to prevent homelessness that way, but also helping that individual or family into a broader array of services that's going to assist them down the line.
That's great. Are there any other water related projects that you want to mention?
The other one is, and this talking to local government folks, so they won't think this is too far in the weeds, but we're moving from quarterly to monthly billing with our water and sewer billing, which may seem like a very small thing. But over the years as our water and sewer bills have gotten more expensive because we're complying with state and federal mandates on clean water issues. And also as we're investing in our infrastructure, which has a significant amount of deferred maintenance. That's putting it lightly, but we have a backlog of significant maintenance on our system. So water and sewer operations are very capital intensive. It costs a lot of money too, for the infrastructure itself. And so over time, our water sewer bills have gotten more expensive and on a quarterly basis, especially for low-income folks, that can become a hardship when there is a quarterly water bill.
And so what we're doing is a transition from, for our residential customers, from that quarterly billing to a monthly billing, which should help folks budget their water and sewer bills a little better. It's obviously going to be smaller bill on a monthly basis. And in those cases where there may be leaks at a property and under the quarterly billing structure, it would take three months and potentially even six months until they would identify that leak at their property. Now they're going to get that identified on a much quicker basis. So again, a relatively small thing on, it's a big technology issue on our end to get to that point. We're hoping that that's also going to be really much more equitable for our residents to have that lower monthly bill rather than the higher quarterly bill.
A great example of how sometimes the most simple innovation is the most effective, even though evidently on the backend, there was lots of hurdles I'm sure to jump through and on the backlog of significant maintenance, you're definitely not the only city to be struggling with that.
I've heard that there are a few other cities out there that have some deferred maintenance in their water and sewer systems. Yes.
Yep. Our goal with these podcasts and on Govlaunch more generally, is to leave local governments with actionable insights. So what's some actionable advice you'd share relating to these initiatives specifically for our audience?
So I sort of broke this down into three buckets. The first one is just start somewhere. You won't be able to solve all of your community's problems in one fell swoop and where you can solve problems, there are always three or four more that that come up. But if you can identify the most significant problems where local government actually has the direct impact on the issue, you can really make a real difference in their residents' lives. And I, you know, the language access program is as an example of that, you try something, you figure out what works you iterate. There are things that aren't going to work, you will fail periodically and that's okay. But if you start somewhere on an issue where you know that the city government, the local government can actually make a difference, you're going to start solving problems and then you can iterate from there to solve more.
The second one is just be intentional and deliberate. Like, you know, Sharon talked about her work in human resources. I've been with the city of Lancaster since 2006. And over that last 15, we have talked a lot and done a fair amount to try to get that workforce that reflects the diversity of our city. And yet we're still in a place where our workforce does not nearly come to reflect the diversity of our city. And so I think the reason for that is because while we were saying the right things and trying to do some things, we didn't take deliberate action, and you know, the intentionality of creating Sharon's new position is a, a way to get to actually solving the problem. So sort of digging in where are the weaknesses and what we've been trying to do.
And one of those weaknesses was we didn't really have anybody leading the effort. We just sort of did the same thing over and over again, and thought we'd get a different result and that doesn't work very well. And then the third one is, and this might come as a surprise to, uh, Jess and Sharon for me to say this, but not everything has a direct return on investment that you can calculate on a spreadsheet. We're a service organization. And while I love a good spreadsheet and one that ties out at the end, what we're doing and providing local government services is a service to our residents. Language access is a good example. We're investing city funds in this program. The translation line that I talked about does have a budgetary cost to it. I can't point to a revenue line item that increases because we were providing better language access to our residents, but we also know that when our residents are engaged in their own city government, uh, when they feel welcomed in city hall or at the police station, cared for at an emergency scene because one of our firefighters has the ability to connect to a person in their own language, it just makes for a better city. It makes for a better city government.
Now loop back in Sharon and Jess, can you each share some actionable advice you'd give as it relates to your roles or the work you've been doing? Something that we haven't yet touched on would be great.
I have two ideas that I've been pondering as I've been listening to my coworkers. I'm always so excited when I really get to hear the work we're doing just across the organization. So two things for me. One is diversity equity and inclusion. This work is about relations and in the end, right, in order to make this happen, it's about building relations. In creating this position that I have now, I have the distinct honor to be working directly with each of our department directors and bureau chiefs on the work that they are doing in their department. So we can be specific with each department about where are the places that we can leverage, because again, we want to make certain that we identify those leverage areas as we look at the areas for improvement. And so the relations that I am building with the directors will begin to make a difference, right, for the employees on the frontline. And the other thing that I would say is just ask your employees the question, right? We have the opportunity to implement an engagement survey and hearing from our employees has given us such great data to act upon. So I would say two things is about, building relations and asking the question.
I have two things as well. It's been fun to hear the things that Patrick and Sharon have been sharing, we don't have enough spaces to even have conversations like this inside everyday city government. So it's fun to talk more about the work than just like do the specific projects. But my number one is to be clear on your why, um, if this ever becomes just a paycheck or just a job, that's surely a sign that people should get out of public service. It's an opportunity to use the platform that we have to make people's lives better. And to like the Sharon's point, look at how we bake the work of equity to the things we already are doing to make it better for the people that we serve. So I think that for me, it's really about creating a more fair and equitable city and in community and country, and that this is one way to do that work.
So I'm clear about why I'm here in showing up in this. I think some of my most powerful and strongest colleagues are in the exact same boat that they're clear on why they come to work every day. And number two, for me, is about making sure that we stay connected to our constituents and customers. I think part of the reason government gets a bad rap is that we lose that part of the equation too quickly, that we have to stay in touch with the folks that we work for. During a time of COVID, that's harder than it ever has. I have so many good memories of being in spaces with people in person and too much of the time that I've worked here. We haven't had the opportunity to find other ways of doing that. And I'm hopeful that we'll soon see opportunities to give back in person. But part of what that does, those connections people, is it helps you see the work that we do through their eyes and not just our own. And when I'm doing different works of change management within the city and looking at different systems or processes that aren't working in the way that they can or should, it's like part of it is that we're doing it as it makes sense, or it makes sense for how the city does work. But it doesn't always necessarily make sense for the person we're working for. And I think that's a big part of what we need to get that part of the equation right. And then that also shifts what the government looks like. It's about being in service of people. Then we know that we're delivering on the covenant, that we're here to deliver on which to build a stronger, more equitable city for the folks that we make sure that it's customer centric all the way.
Really great advice that I'm sure will inspire many other local governments to find similar creative and impactful ways of weaving equity in all aspects of its operations. And also a lovely reminder of the vital role local governments play in folk’s everyday lives. So really appreciate it. I look forward to Govlaunch continuing the conversation next week, as we discuss Lancaster's vision with your police and fire chief, should be a really great chat. You've certainly given local government's listening and some great ideas for ways to boost communication and work towards becoming more equitable as well as adopting sound government practices. So thank you again for being here.
Thanks for having us.
Thank you very much.
I'm Lindsay Pica-Alfano and this podcast was produced by Govlaunch the Wiki for local government innovation. You can subscribe to hear more stories like this, wherever you get your podcasts. If you're a local government innovator, we hope you'll help us on our mission to build the largest free resource for local governments globally. You can join to search and contribute to the firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for tuning in. We hope to see you next time on the Govlaunch podcast.