A Critical COVID-19 Response

At this moment we are focused, as we must be, on precautions, testing, maintaining physical distance, and meeting immediate needs. But as we move more deeply into the heart of the COVID-19 health crisis, how our cities fare in their ability to respond, engage community members, and solve problems will also set the stage for the future. Will cities confront underlying public challenges that the coronavirus outbreak put into such stark relief? Will civic engagement be at the center of city efforts to rebuild and recharge communities?

The road ahead is not an easy one, yet, adversity and opportunity often go hand in hand.

Noel Nix, Deputy Director of Intergovernmental Relations and Community Engagement for the City of St. Paul, recently shared insights from a community member that helped perk him up and shift his perspective. “[COVID-19] is so serious,” the pastor said. “But part of it is exciting too—we get to determine who we are as a society and how we want to respond and explore what is possible.”

The challenges ahead are community challenges. No single entity or group can fix them. They require engaging local government, residents, the nonprofit sector, philanthropy, the faith community, and the business community to answer a number of important questions, none of which have easy answers:

  • How will the city get back on its feet?
  • What’s the best way to help people who’ve lost jobs get back to work?
  • What will happen to individuals and families who’ve become homeless?
  • How will the service industry and small business community change?

It’s not too early for cities to establish local recovery teams tasked with identifying vulnerable populations, creating engagement strategies, and aligning resources. Here are my five tips for a successful COVID-19 engagement recovery team:

1. Build off of Existing Structures

Rather than compete with existing efforts, your recovery team should build off the city’s response framework. Look for opportunities to embed engagement and address the needs of impacted residents, such as with emergency response units. 

2. Establish Partnerships

Identify the primary stakeholders to involve, including citizen groups, community organizations, and anchor institutions. Consider your holistic needs from on-the-ground capacity to pro bono and expert contributions, and be sure to include trusted entities, established allies, and affinity groups connected to the populations you hope to serve. Partners may make material, practical, or creative contributions to your efforts. 

3. Create a Shared Plan

Collaborative efforts benefit from a clear mandate that all partners can work towards.  Consider techniques such as Expectations Mapping, Card Sorting, Design Considerations, and How Might We to co-create a shared foundation. A robust plan should address the gaps between current needs and resources and include clear role assignments, action steps, and opportunities to course correct during implementation. Action plans that rest on stakeholder engagement should incorporate these steps.  

4. Ground Truth in Information

Take the time to confirm any inferences and assumptions that informed your action plan. Confer with colleagues, tour neighborhoods, and listen to mutual aid leaders and front-line workers. This is an opportunity to get their input and invite them into the process.

5. Benchmark and Reflect 

Throughout your work, monitor progress against your goals. If the actions are not having the intended effect, engage relevant stakeholders to revisit expectations and roll out modifications. 

There is incredible need, but there is also an incredible groundswell of people and organizations coming forward to help in this crisis. How we recover in the long run is in our hands. Be safe and take care of each other.


Is your city starting to explore mid- to long-term responses to the COVID-19 pandemic that meet the needs of local vulnerable populations? We’d like to learn about your process and plans. Get in touch at [email protected] to continue the conversation.