The Biden administration recently issued a memo to the heads of all Federal agencies centering Justice40 as part of its whole-of-government approach to advancing environmental justice. Justice40 is a holistic approach that directs Federal agencies to work with states and local communities to ensure that at least 40 percent of the overall benefits from Federal investments in climate and clean energy go to disadvantaged communities.
But defining disadvantaged communities remains a moving target. Utilities and program administrators have experienced the challenges of this first hand and understand that communities are complex systems defined by factors like high energy cost burden, low energy access, linguistic isolation, high housing cost, and substandard housing, to name a few. Addressing this challenge requires a holistic approach to community offerings today.
ILLUME conducted research on best practices to better align community needs and program goals. Here we offer a few learnings to better incorporate community voices into program design.
Best Practices for Community Partnerships
Among our research we identified six best practices to help advance a single goal: A critical understanding of the needs of the community to co-create relevant and effective programs.
Our recommendations are:
#1. Engage Community Partners Throughout the Lifecycle
Begin by defining the problem your program aims to address. Community partners know exactly who needs services within a community and what the communities’ needs are. They will also be able to pinpoint where utility and community interests overlap, and how to best ensure that communities can access those services. Solution development, outreach and implementation, outcomes assessment, and engaging with community voices throughout a project can maximize project effectiveness.
#2. Pursue Partnerships
Create partnerships with agencies outside the energy space to help develop a more holistic understanding of community needs and provide a greater range of benefits and services. One example are programs at the intersection of health and energy, like the Bronx Healthy Buildings Program. This program uses community partnerships to drive energy savings and improve health outcomes through improvements in multifamily buildings with high incidence of asthma-related emergency room visits and hospital admissions.
#3. Build Trust
Work with trusted messengers within the community to overcome hesitation that may exist between utilities and underserved groups. Some customers may not trust their utility due to a prior negative experience or negative impressions of similar institutions, and therefore may view energy efficiency offerings as “too good to be true.” Working with a trusted community leader or organization can lend legitimacy and local support to utility efforts. Utility recognition and support of partner efforts can help demonstrate that utilities are invested in partnerships with community leaders.
#4. Emphasize One-on-One Conversations and Personal Connections
Opt for personalization when designing outreach strategies. One-on-one conversations can help utilities and community partners better understand customer needs and build credibility as an interested and trustworthy partner. Qualitative research through in-depth interviews can be a powerful tool toward this end.
#5. Minimize Participation Burden
Provide community partners and customers greater access to financial, technical, and coordination resources. Keep in mind that community partners themselves may benefit from support, such as facilitation grants for survey research, childcare, meals, or other resources that can help organizers overcome time or financial constraints to allow them to co-create programs. Creating a customer journey map is one way of identifying customer pain points and other barriers to participation. Research conducted by ILLUME on customer nonparticipation in Massachusetts uncovered barriers that would not have been otherwise apparent when treating nonparticipants as a monolith.
#6. Ensure Expectations for Community Partners are Realistic
Make sure expectations for community partners and stakeholders are realistic and clearly documented (with ample time to complete). Overly stringent fiduciary requirements or tight timelines may limit the ability for groups that are less formally organized or primarily volunteer-run to participate. More importantly, make sure your ask is free of placation. Sherry Arnstein’s Ladder of Citizen Participation, which continues to stand the test of time, cautions against participation as placation—which can occur when stakeholders are given limited influence in a process, or their participation is largely tokenistic.
As we enter a new era of energy equity, aligning community needs and program goals will challenge utilities and program administrators to rethink the role of communities as more like co-creators, and less like trusted messengers, which has been the traditional view. A research approach that invites community to have a seat at the table at the beginning of program design can result in both equity and engagement. A win-win for utilities, program administrators, and their customers.