As part of Grand Rapids’ participation in the Cities of Opportunity pilot, an initiative to advance cross-sector health equity work, the city added health and environment as a new strategic priority. The National League of Cities (NLC) spoke with Becky Jo Glover, chief customer service and innovation officer for the City of Grand Rapids, and Alex Melton, community liaison for the City of Grand Rapids, about the city’s cross-sector work.
Following Glover’s mantra of “work smart, not hard,” the Grand Rapids Cities of Opportunity team has used its expertise in data to build strong partnerships with Spectrum Health and Kent County Health Department while aligning its efforts with racial equity work taking place across City departments.
NLC: Can you describe your relationship with Spectrum Health?
Melton: The partnership with Spectrum Health in this area is new – our city only had a budding relationship with the health system partner in the field of health policy prior to participating in Cities of Opportunity. We included Spectrum Health in response to the RFP’s suggestion to bring along a health partner. The complementarity of our work quickly became evident, leading to a strong collaboration that built on previous joint work in other areas.
Within seven months, we worked with the city’s strategic planning team to develop a strategic priority dedicated to health equity. This codified the partnership with Spectrum Health in the new strategic plan for the next five years. Race equity and health are reflected in all policies throughout the strategic plan.
NLC: What strategies would you recommend to staff in other cities who are seeking to work with other city departments and external partners?
Glover: Partnerships don’t just happen – they require attentive consideration and investment. We are always looking for relationships with new entities. Instead of collaborating on projects with just one other department, we tackle new initiatives using multiple channels. This results in a program that takes a multi-faceted approach supported by a coalition.
Deep partnerships arise from maintaining engagement. Our team made sure that the staff in other departments who had helped make the connection with Invest Health remained up to date. Keep these nuggets of information short, pithy and timely so people are informed without being overwhelmed. These consistent updates made the new strategic priority with Spectrum Health viable within the City organization since City staff knew the pulse and promise of the relationship.
Try different models of partner engagement to see what works best for your situation. For example, the Grand Rapids Cities of Opportunity team found internal success with a subject matter expert model in which staff from each department function as consultants for collaborative projects. Having those relationships when it came time to redesigning pages meant we had someone who knew all the right people to connect with and who knew the content really well.
NLC: Can you say more about the subject matter expert model and what that looks like in practice?
Glover: The subject matter expert approach is reflected in our relationship with the Kent County Health Department. When the Cities of Opportunity team heard that the health department was interested in data work, we immediately realized that our experience from the City Health Dashboard and the Grand Rapids Data Portal could serve as a valuable resource for the health department. In addition to avoiding unnecessary replication, data collaboration improves the utility of both systems by ensuring compatibility and complementarity in the city and county health data.
NLC: What lessons are you taking away from your work on this project?
Glover: If you have the right people and the right avenue and support behind you, a lot can be accomplished in a short period of time. Having the right people at the table is key. The team started by looking at programmatic health elements with partners and then scaled that up to systems-level change to embed data-supported health equity into all decision-making.
Melton: Emphasizing social determinants of health mindset has been key to building both the Invest Health and Kent County Health Department partnerships. Always keep the community at the heart of why you’re developing these partners and relationships. It makes the work more meaningful and robust so everyone can sink their teeth into it.
About the Author: Anne Li is an associate for health & wellness in the National League of Cities Institute for Youth, Education, and Families.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.