Municipal governments often need to poll citizens regarding community planning and development initiatives. What do people think about changes to the roads? What are the priorities for new infrastructure spending? How should the local government invest in parks and recreation?
These are the types of issues that are particularly well-suited for online discussion and debate. Differing opinions can be presented, supported, argued against, and ultimately resolved. People can contribute and check in to online discussions on their own schedule, as well as take time to think about issues before commenting on other people’s ideas.
Diverse sets of stakeholders and user needs
Municipalities generally want to hear from as many people in their community as possible. This can present a big challenge in the online environment due to the diverse range of knowledge and behaviours across different stakeholder groups.
Stakeholders who are comfortable communicating online will think nothing of opening multiple browser tabs, popping in and out of online discussions, and researching more on the topic on their own.
Less tech-savvy stakeholders may struggle to participate online, navigating to the right page, make sense of the buttons, icons and links, and finally feel frustrated to discover they have to go through another process of registering a user name and password before they can actually post their opinion.
How can municipalities straddle this divide and make online community engagement a process that is meaningful and easy for all participants?
- Remember that good design is is always important.
- Clear, consistent prompts and interface cues (icons, buttons, layout) should be intuitive and ideally fade into the background as a support to the content.
- Accessibility standards should be followed and it should be immediately obvious how to navigate and make the text larger or smaller.
- Set up the platform to focus primarily on the content, keeping things on the same level for all users.
- Less-experienced tech users are still familiar with text, images and video.
- Making the content the focus of the experience will ensure that everyone is on the same level and that nothing is out of reach for those not as comfortable with the platform.
- We know a picture is worth a thousand words, so imagine how much value a slide presentation or a well-made video adds.
- Move beyond static text. Let people see with their own eyes a slide show of the area up for re-zoning, or watch an interview with the mayor being grilled about the need for more community policing.
- Content presented this way makes people want to watch and read, but also come back and check for updates, and share with their friends.
- Social media integration allows for more interaction and networking potential.
- Having an option to leave comments using a Facebook profile may appeal to some, while being able to tweet a discussion page helps others attract traffic for their own endeavours. Plus it increases the exposure for the engagement project.
- The issues themselves will change the appeal factor for potential contributors.
- For example, youth may not connect to municipal budgets, unless they understand the relation to services and infrastructure that matters to them.
- Focusing on the subjects and issues that affect everyone can help ensure the discussion receives attention from a wider audience.
Different Engagement Options:
- Discussion boards are great for gathering thoughtful comments that can express multiple perspectives and generate debate. However most people don’t want to read through long threads of people agreeing or arguing about details that don’t pertain to them.
- Surveys can allow proponents to gather specific answers to specific questions and gather opinions.
- Polls allow those conducting the exercise to get a snapshot of priorities, or gauge the exact level of support on a set scale, and thereby get more specific, direct feedback for the questions they ask.
- Take advantage of the wide variety of different engagement options available through the technology. Different people will respond to different modes of engagement, so offering a selection will garner the widest range of responses.
Tie your online engagement project to offline issues, events and topics. Community events and celebrations, municipal elections, new infrastructure developments or re-zoning, and common challenges people are facing…these are all relevant subjects for online consultation, but they also present opportunities to broaden the discussion and cross-pollinate different engagement activities.
An open house is a good place to promote your online engagement, while your online engagement is also a good place to promote the next ‘town-hall’ meeting.
If you make your engagement project easy to find you will get traffic, but it won’t get discovered without some help.
Don’t expect any one mode of promotion to cover all your bases. How can you reach your intended audience? Email, blog posts, posters, social media promotion to specific groups – it’s important to use multiple methods of promotion to reach as many stakeholders as possible.
Look for spots or opportunities where people have a moment to stop and actually read something. Consider when people will receive your email promotions. Look for related websites and other online services, from forums to Twitter to municipal web pages etc. that you can post a link on. And take time to create catchy link headline…the engagement starts from the first moment they see your message.
Long-term campaign, not a single event
Despite all these advances in technology and familiarity with online tools and activity, sometimes you may not get the response you expected even with targeted promotional efforts.
Don’t get discouraged – view online community engagement as an ongoing strategic process, a long-term campaign rather than a single event. Online engagement is not something you can do once and expect everyone to ‘attend.’
Municipalities are becoming more and more savvy at reaching out and listening to stakeholders online. Public consultations can be a productive way to engage local communities, and are an effective way to encourage citizens to contribute to municipal processes.
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