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Using Simulation-Based Public Engagement for Community Problem-Solving

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

By Chris Adams, Andrew Sturmfels, Matthew M. Lentz and Renata Robles 
April 3, 2023

News headlines may highlight division and acrimony in public engagement, but the reality is that the public’s expectations of participation and transparency are growing.

Broad, informed participation creates an environment to support strong actions, and simulation-based public engagement is a better way to frame up tough trade-offs required to meet community-wide goals. The opportunity is to do something different than—or in addition to—speaking for three minutes at the mic at a public meeting.

With simulations (sometimes called scenario planning), cities, counties, school districts and planning departments can provide stakeholders with graphic-rich interactive pages to gather input quickly and easily on revenue, expenditures, stimulus funds and locations on maps under consideration for new housing. The flexibility of these tools enables individuals to use their digital devices to provide input in their own time and at their convenience.

Here are three examples of the benefits of simulation-based public engagement, including a California city that increased budget participation from its large Spanish-speaking population, a Pennsylvania school district that uncovered communication gaps while gathering priorities for stimulus funding and another California city that determined local preferences for new housing to meet state-mandated goals.

Example 1: Healdsburg Sees Significant Budget Engagement with Spanish Speakers

In the heart of California wine country, the City of Healdsburg has around 12,000 residents, almost a third of whom are Latino, including many agricultural workers. Historically, Healdsburg’s budget outreach has been minimal, but those who did participate were highly engaged. In 2022, as the city approached its next two-year budget-setting cycle, budget leaders decided to use a budget simulation to increase engagement and educate residents. Engaging with the 30 percent of the population who were Latino was especially important and would require two versions, in Spanish and English.

The budget simulation launched in early February 2022 and gathered public input for about eight weeks. (See archived views of the simulations in Spanish here and English here.)

Simulations can help overcome language barriers and demystify the intricate processes of the budget, but the city knew it needed to address educational gaps in understanding city services and spending implications. The city saw the budget simulation as an opportunity to do outreach on programs not being taken advantage of by residents, like utility discount, reduced sports fees and other services.

The next step was getting the city’s Spanish-speaking residents to use the simulation. One of the most important parts of engagement is trust, something Healdsburg-based nonprofit Corazón, which supports the Latino community in Sonoma County, had already developed with the Latino population. The city’s partnership with Corazón ensured the Latino population knew about the budget outreach and was able to access the simulation. This effort included three community meetings co-hosted with Corazón in both English and Spanish, with incentives including free dinner and childcare.

The eight-week engagement paid off. The city received about 400 submissions—nearly a quarter done on the Spanish simulation. Budget leaders heard from voices in the community that typically had not had a strong say in the public process, and those voices proved incredibly valuable in shaping some of the city’s budget decisions.

Example 2: Upper Moreland Township School District Refines Communications After Public Input on Stimulus Spending

Located north of Philadelphia in Montgomery County, the Upper Moreland Township School District, or UMTSD, encompasses four schools in a mostly residential community and has a population of 3,200 students and about 200 classroom teachers. In August 2020, after six months of COVID-19 shutdown, Pennsylvania announced schools would reopen under new guidelines. Going back to the classroom now meant social distancing, wearing masks and symptom screening upon entrance—a challenging environment for daily operations that revealed needs that could be addressed by stimulus funds. Much of the challenge would be finding common ground between those for and against school reopening; stimulus funding, thus, needed to satisfy both sides while addressing the core issues at hand.

For UMTSD, ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief) funding represented an opportunity, not an obstacle. In June 2021, UTMSD decided to use an online simulation tool for community input on how to prioritize spending of $2.3 million from ESSER, which mandates public engagement and often documentation of the engagement process.

UMTSD used the prioritization simulation to highlight 11 possible selections for the stimulus funds, ranging from improving classroom furniture ($315K) to hiring three teachers for two years ($600K) to intensive inclusion training for staff ($450K). Users saw a selection of 11 tiles with images, dollar allocation amounts and descriptions providing context for how the money would be used. They could then make selections until all dollars were allocated, and lastly, rank their choices. (See an archived view of UMTSD’s simulation here.)

The simulation feedback helped shape how stimulus funds would be used and refined the district’s communication efforts by identifying some areas that needed targeted communications. The demographics also provided a way to tie in diversity, equity and inclusion, a very important goal of the district, as well as the documentation required for ESSER. 

More broadly, the simulation generated feedback from both external and internal stakeholders, including teachers who were able to identify their priorities, for a cohesive data set. With this valuable perspective, school district leaders plan to continue using simulations as part of ongoing budget discussions, as well as other changes to reach the widest range of stakeholders. 

Example 3: Resident Engagement Helps Define Lafayette’s Housing Goals

In 2021, Lafayette, California, a mostly residential town of around 25,000 in the larger San Francisco Bay area, started updating its housing element, which required zoning changes to accommodate an additional 2,114 housing units distributed across four income categories from very low to above moderate income for the new cycle spanning 2023-2031. When compared to Lafayette’s last housing element of 400 units, this represented a large increase spurred in part by new state requirements for additional development in rapid transit station parking lots.

City planners felt the increase would necessitate significant community input, so they set out to engage residents on where and how much housing should be built in certain areas of the city. Encouraged by the effectiveness of simulations for budget engagement, the city helped to develop a housing simulation to present the information in an interactive, visual way instead of with spreadsheets.

The city’s General Plan Advisory Committee (GPAC) publicized the program with a website (PlanLafayette.org), direct mailings to 13,000 households, YouTube videos, social media and advertisements in the local newsletter, and attendance at more than 60 community meetings. The city’s larger engagement strategy included four remote community workshops addressing collaboration, identification of issues and problem-solving, which garnered almost 400 attendees.

For one of the four community workshops, Lafayette used the housing simulation to engage residents in choosing which areas of the city should be selected for increased housing density. This input helped shape the city’s draft housing element plan, which the city council voted unanimously to submit a first draft in June, the result of hundreds of volunteer hours and public participation, including about 1,500 pageviews of the simulation, 128 hours of time on the site and 48 housing plan submissions.


In this time of economic uncertainty, how communities and districts gather input from stakeholders has implications for local budgets, education funding and infrastructure investment. We will need the support of these stakeholders as we move forward, and online simulations are one way to achieve actionable results that improve our communities.

Author: Chris Adams is president of Balancing Act, a provider of simulation-based public engagement tools for government. Matthew M. Lentz is the Chief Financial Officer/Board Secretary for the Upper Moreland School District. Andrew Sturmfels is Assistant City Manager, City of Healdsburg. Renata Robles is Associate Planner, City of Lafayette.

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