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Clare Epstein
Clare Epstein | VP, Public Sector, Civis Analytics

Note: An earlier version of this article was published on GCN.com.

The $46.5 billion Emergency Rental Assistance program — created to assist U.S. households unable to pay rent or utilities during the COVID-19 pandemic — continues to distribute funds at a woeful pace. Only about $7.7 billion in aid was disbursed as of August 2021, representing less than 16 percent of what Congress appropriated. 

The biggest problem may be that many Americans don’t even know the Emergency Rental Assistance program exists. The nonprofit Urban Institute reported in July that 57 percent of tenants and 40 percent of landlords were unaware that assistance is available to them.

We often see state, county, and municipal governments struggle to promote these initiatives and deliver messages that drive awareness or action. Some find it difficult to connect with the citizens these programs were created to benefit. 

Government marketing campaigns can lack the sophistication of private sector efforts: commercial brands spend millions to better understand and sell to their customers, while government resources are far more constrained. But with initiatives like the Emergency Rental Assistance program going unknown to so many of the citizens they were created to aid, governments should explore new approaches to outreach — to leverage data to engage the communities they serve in a clear and concise way, so that people can make informed decisions.

Why data-driven campaign outreach matters

Standard procurement processes might identify the most appropriate creative partner for a local government advertising campaign, but these proposals may lack the budget and requirements to conduct quantitative analytics.

Without quantitative analytics, governments and their creative partners may have difficulty providing messaging that resonates with their target audience. Government organizations need quantitative information and insights to roll out compelling, sustainable outreach campaigns that speak loudly and clearly to the people that most need to hear the messages they’re sharing. Most public sector organizations usually have access to data to improve outreach, and most have staffers possessing some level of data analytics skills but don’t often have the time and resources to combine these staffers with the data.

However, with the right software and services, governments can efficiently and cost-effectively leverage these resources to identify the people poised to benefit most from their programs, and determine how, when, and what to communicate to this audience.

Moreover, with this data science capability in place, governments can establish continuity — and an understanding of constituents that over time grows deeper, more expansive, and more nuanced. 

For example, over the last several years, local governments have been tasked with responding to a set of common challenges. In 2019 and throughout 2020, municipalities implemented programs to educate residents about the importance of responding to the 2020 Census, and when COVID-19 emerged in March 2020, governments were required to help these same residents understand the benefits of social distancing, wearing masks, and getting vaccinated. The campaign topics may differ, but operationally, 90 percent of the data infrastructure is the same, providing a jumping-off point for future campaigns.  

Building an effective outreach infrastructure

How can your organization create an analytics capacity that benefits both government staffers and those they serve? Here are some tips we recommend:

  • A commitment to centralizing your data and making insights accessible across teams.
  • Systems based on open-source languages and libraries, so common data skill sets can be quickly and easily applied. If it’s a struggle to understand and access the system, it won’t get used. (Working off of open-source frameworks and using common tools also expands the pool of candidates that can assist you in your efforts.)
  • An outreach philosophy predicated on security and sustainability, complete with processes that are properly documented. People will leave your organization: don’t let their institutional knowledge leave with them. 
  • A data steward or outreach data provider to work on your campaigns. If building your data analytics capability from scratch, you’ll need to fill this role with an experienced data scientist, but working with a platform provider allows for much greater flexibility. 

With quantitative outreach programs, government organizations can work towards preventing the lack of messaging related to the Emergency Rental Assistance program from happening again. If legislators invest billions of dollars in programs to assist citizens in need, then citizens must know those funds are available, and how to obtain them. Implementing an outreach infrastructure to connect directly with residents and constituents who qualify for programs isn’t just good sense; it’s good, efficient government, too.