The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services partnered with S&G Endeavors on a four-year project that helped improve walkability in Nebraska. WalkNE created a state-wide coalition to address this issue and also facilitated local initiatives in 15 Nebraska communities ranging from Hebron – population 2000 – to Grand Island – population 50,000 – to Omaha, the largest city in the state.
What stands out in this effort is a process that S&G Endeavors designed for DHSS to be driven locally by health department districts and local community members. Instead of imposing pre-determined goals, Jeremy Grandstaff of S&G Endeavors deliberately focused on being open to the possibilities. “The outcomes in each of the distinct groups were as varied as the groups themselves,” says Grandstaff, “but the results were a success because the process allowed each group to identify achievable goals and pursue them.”
A Consistant Process, Diverse Outcomes
A case in point: WalkNE was originally conceived to be about walking. But the open process quickly identified that biking and overall health were intertwined with walking, and a successful project would need to take all three issues into account. As a result, safe streets, walk/bike paths, and health considerations like accessibility to health care facilities were adopted as goals in some of the communities participating.
The state-wide initiative, and the 15 communities targeted for the effort, achieved outcomes that were radically different. “We didn’t expect success to look so diverse,” says Brian Coyle, the DHHS Physical Activity Coordinator. “When we started out the target was only six communities, but because of the success of the process and the buy in from local communities, we ramped up and more than doubled our number of communities impacted.” The needs of the different communities, their resources, and the enthusiasm for change varied greatly. And yet, by careful design of the process, S&G Endeavors was able to adapt to the diversity. Even the communities that weren’t able to achieve significant progress were able to use the process to identify the issues, hone-in on the impediments, and table the conversation in a workable form to be picked up when resources and time come available, just one of the reported outcomes unveiled by the recently released external evaluation of the project (Download the Executive Summary or read the full report to see the findings).
WalkNE was funded by federal grant money that came with certain directives. Coyle and Grandstaff knew that the independent spirit of Nebraskans required a strategy that would encourage communities to own the initiative. The goal was to get communities to adapt the directives for their unique circumstances and produce results achievable and appropriate for each, individual community. A prescriptive approach simply would not work, particularly one that failed to meet the particularities of each community where they were. “We knew communities would not want outsiders coming in and telling them what to do,” says Coyle. Instead, the goal was to engage a wide scope of stakeholders in dialogue around the community’s future, creating a prioritized, actionable, and measurable strategy and a clear roadmap to achieve long-term change.
Community Driven Engaged Change
“Using flexible design really forces you to trust the process,” says Grandstaff. “We had to set up a structure that would drive the outcomes, which meant we needed to both engage on certain themes and meet the community where they were.” The structure began with Grandstaff and Coyle working with a point of contact in the community – or, in the case of the state, Coyle served as that point. Then, together, they formed a planning committee of additional stakeholders to put together a community-wide summit that would harness the enthusiasm, priorities and focus of the very people who would be essential to a successful outcome. Following the community summit, a steering committee would be formed of the participants who were most engaged in the process to follow through on the action items identified by the summit.
The Nebraska Model Teaches Us That:
#1: A Strong and Diverse Design Team –> Increases representation & diverse participation
#2: Collaborative, Direct & Meaningful Community Engagement –> Accelerates The Change
#3: Technical Assistance & Training –> Increases knowledge & Sustainability
#4: Consistent communications & strong partnerships –> Increases the reach to other communities
“This isn’t a process that just works for walkability,” says Jennifer Hansen, a health education specialist and community development manager, from Public Health Solutions Health District, who worked with the communities of Hebron, Fairbury, and Beatrice on the initiative. It is a format that can create success for other initiatives like general health. This was clear by the success in some communities that incorporated health into the priorities of the WalkNE initiative. “We saw that we could meet the needs of each community by creating opportunities for community members to engage, participate and own the process,” says Coyle. There were nearly two hundred participants in the overall project over the four years. The overall feedback from participants was positive. S&G Endeavors created a blueprint for success in Nebraska’s walking initiative, and that blueprint can be the basis for designs of other initiatives as well.
S&G Endeavors aims to help other government agencies and companies tap into the power of this collaborative planning process. Be sure to contact Jeremy directly for a conversation on how such a process can be customized to increase program success, transform your work, and engage communities in creating actionable change.