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Clarifying the Role of Government in Social Sustainability

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Kelly Larson
May 3, 2016

Last quarter, I highlighted work occurring in Dubuque, Iowa, to foster cross-sector collaboration for social sustainability through the development of a community equity profile. The network partners who are a part of Inclusive Dubuque continue in the work to develop strategies and action plans for the community as a whole. In this column, I will focus specifically on the role of local government in contributing toward these efforts.

First, local government plays a role in supporting the collaborative work at the community level. The City Council has adopted Inclusive Dubuque Action Planning as a priority and has allocated approximately $70,000 per year for three years to the effort. In March 2016, the city’s support of Inclusive Dubuque received a first place City Cultural Diversity Award from the National League of Cities.

network-1020332_640City staff members from various departments serve on the Inclusive Dubuque equity profile working groups alongside community members and leaders from other institutions. These working groups are using a Results Based Accountability (RBA) framework to develop equity results and indicators for the community. As strategies and action plans are developed at the community level, city departments consider the ways in which they can partner to contribute toward those strategies and actions.

As an example, the City of Dubuque’s Leisure Services Department holds an AmeriCorps Partners in Learning Grant. This grant leverages AmeriCorps volunteers to help impact reading scores and school attendance rates for elementary aged youth in support of the communitywide Campaign for Grade Level Reading. In March 2016, Dubuque received a Pacesetter Award from the National Campaign for Grade Level Reading for the community’s collaborative efforts.

Second, as the working groups establish population level results and indicators for the major focus areas of the equity profile—economic well-being, health, housing, education, safe neighborhoods, transportation and safety—city staff are taking those into consideration as we work to develop the city’s open performance dashboard. One goal is to strive for alignment between local government’s indicators and the indicators selected by Inclusive Dubuque. A related goal is to support managers in using RBA thinking as they develop strategies and performance measures for the work that they do in their departments to contribute toward moving the needle on the indicators.

Third, the city has established an equity core team inside government that is charged with supporting departments in developing their equity plans. The team began by assessing how the leadership team members within each department were currently approaching equity, diversity and inclusion issues. The team also researched best practices and thought about those areas that are uniquely within the sphere of influence: workforce recruitment and retention, delivery of services, allocation of government funding and the processes used to make decisions.

We chose to begin our work by focusing explicitly on racial equity, in part because of the statistical realities associated with racial disparities and in part because we already have an ongoing effort to address racial inequities in housing. Working closely with the Local and Regional Government Alliance on Race and Equity, we developed a template for department level plans and an equity toolkit. We also delivered training to our leadership team members across the organization on racial equity and key concepts associated with racial equity, including the distinctions between implicit and explicit bias as well as distinguishing between individual, institutional and structural impacts.

All staff in our housing, police, planning and human rights departments received more in-depth training, as did city council members and all staff in our city manager’s office. This latter training included a half-day session for leadership team members from these departments introducing the racial equity toolkit. We also invited select staff members to attend a two-day RBA workshop hosted by Inclusive Dubuque last fall, and will offer a follow-up workshop with government leadership team members.

Using the RBA process, the internal equity team has now begun to develop a set of indicators and performance measures that will help us to track the degree to which we are succeeding as an organization in recruiting and retaining a diverse workforce and in equitably delivering our services and allocating funding. Next steps will include using the assessment results from each department to work with the department in developing “phase I” of their equity plan. The ultimate goal is to use RBA thinking to develop our strategies within and across departments as we work to insure that our institution is contributing toward collectively impacting equity in the Dubuque community.


Author: Kelly Larson serves as the Human Rights Director for the City of Dubuque, Iowa. She has degrees in law and psychology from the University of Iowa, and an Intercultural Professional Certificate from the Institute on Intercultural Communication. She can be reached at [email protected]

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