Strengthening Proximate Voices in Federal Policy Development

America Forward is dedicated to uplifting the voices of proximate leaders and stakeholders in federal policy conversations. This spring, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) put out a Request for Information with the goal of strengthening its engagement with communities and developing overarching frameworks that agencies can use for public participation and community engagement, known as PPCE. Last month, we shared a letter with OMB that highlighted several key recommendations to improve the PPCE process for federal agencies based on our experiences and the experiences of our Coalition in connecting proximate leaders and government agencies.

We are excited by OMB’s efforts to improve the federal government’s engagement with the public. The America Forward Coalition has shown first-hand how critical community-based stakeholders with proximate expertise are to developing strong, effective policies. Federal agencies must engage, encourage, and leverage the unique relationships and knowledge of non-governmental, community-based organizations, as well as hear directly from program participants and proximate community members, to build the most responsive policy. 

Leveraging the America Forward Coalition’s extensive experience engaging with federal policymakers, we made several specific recommendations:

  • Broaden opportunities for engagement. To engage a wider range of community stakeholders in an effective way, federal agencies must broaden their approach from the typical requests for written comment. Agencies should provide multiple forums for community voices to share their perspectives beyond simply written venues, such as public forums, and offer times to participate outside of the “regular” working hours of 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. They should provide longer time frames to respond than the common 30- or 60-day deadlines, especially when questions are not time-sensitive, to enable stakeholders to develop the most effective, responsive feedback. They should provide fair compensation when asking for a significant investment of time from community stakeholders. And critically, agencies should prioritize outreach to non-governmental, community-based organizations who can serve as trusted intermediaries.
  • Ask better questions. As a starting point, agencies should issue clear, specific questions tied to specific prospective actions whenever possible, as opposed to raising dozens of broad issues with unclear implications. At the same time, agencies should ask community stakeholders not only about the challenges and the barriers they face, but also for solutions, as it is often the direct, lived experience of stakeholders that produces the most useful and creative insights.
  • Respond to input in a clear way. When agencies request significant time and effort from the community, they should have a clear plan to report back to ensure participants feel heard and the time put into their feedback feels valuable. These responses could range from informal wrap ups, such as a blog post from an agency leader, to sharing any action directly following a request for input with those consulted (e.g., emailing back all of the respondents to a Federal Register notice after issuing guidance). Agencies should also consider how they measure success in their outreach, in particular by including the extent of responses reflecting direct input from proximate participants and stakeholders directly affected by issues (e.g., former or current benefits programs recipients).
  • Build stronger federal infrastructure. The federal government must make real investments in the infrastructure needed to support the efforts to gather and implement community input. We encourage OMB to consider ways to institutionalize support for PPCE efforts over the long-term, ideally through the creation of an White House Office of Inclusive Impact & Innovation as America Forward has recommended, as well as in alignment with recent advances through the Evidence Act and the Uniform Grants Guidance. Further, we urge OMB to deal head-on with the Paperwork Reduction Act, which has long posed a major barrier to effective, responsive community engagement and itself generated reams of burdensome paperwork.

We are hopeful that these recommendations will be thoroughly considered and successful in helping OMB finalize rules that lead to deeper, more meaningful public participation and community engagement and more effective, impactful policy created at the federal level. To read our full letter of recommendations, click here.

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