How municipalities can facilitate more effective online community engagement
Most municipal governments need to poll citizens regarding community planning and development initiatives. What do people think about repairs to the main road? What are people’s priorities for new infrastructure spending? How important are the upgrades to the recreation centre?
These are the types of issues that are particularly well-suited for online discussion and debate. Different opinions can be presented, supported, argued against, and maybe even resolved! People can contribute and check in 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.
Gen-Y youth might think nothing of popping open multiple browser tabs – while simultaneously Instant Messaging with friends and streaming music videos – quickly firing off some commentary about that new skateboard park they’re hoping gets funded, and then checking in again from their smart phone the next morning on the bus.
Meanwhile, long-time residents who many not understand the difference between a browser and a search engine, might require an hour or two of focused effort to get online, navigate to the right page, make sense of the buttons, icons and links, and finally feel ready to submit a comment only 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 simple enough for less tech savvy citizens to participate while still keeping it engaging and pertinent for younger constituents?
- Good design is good design, whether targeting young or old.
- 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.
- Setting up the platform to focus primarily on the content keeps things on the same level for all users.
- Less-experiences computer users are still familiar with text, images and even 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 more interaction and networking potential, which appeals to those users who are familiar with Web 2.0 features.
- 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 endeavors. Plus it increases the exposure for the engagement exercise.
- The issues themselves can obviously change the appeal factor for potential contributors.
- Most youth probably won’t feel any connection to municipal budgets, for example, unless they understand that the money could potentially be given to or taken away from things they are interested in.
- Older citizens may be able to see the importance of long-term strategic planning or investment in infrastructure, but unless it’s presented in a way that connects with young people then it won’t get the input from that demographic.
- Focusing on the subjects and issues that affect everyone can help ensure the discussion receives attention from a wider audience.
Framing the Issues:
- Younger audiences are used to scanning a non-stop stream of headlines, status-updates, twitter feeds, and small chunks of data, and are experts at filtering out things that don’t appeal to them.
- Discussing budget numbers in dry government-speak will be a total turn-off, but talking about a new soccer field vs. a new set of traffic lights would probably spark some thoughts from a generation that doesn’t yet have their own cars.
- The way the issues are presented will change how much attention they receive.
Different Engagement Options:
- Discussions boards are great for gathering thoughtful comments that can express multiple perspectives and generate debate. Some people don’t want to read through long threads of people agreeing or arguing about details that don’t pertain to them, though.
- Surveys can allow proponents to gather specific answers to specific questions and gather opinions much less vague than those buried in rambling run-on sentences by overly-excited commenters.
- 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.
People are busy. Everyone gets more emails and Facebook messages than they can handle. There are many demands for peoples attention and time. If you make your engagement project easy to find, you will get traffic but it won’t get discovered without some help.
You can’t expect any one mode of promotion to cover all your bases either. There are tons of ways to promote your engagement…from email (don’t spam though!) and blog posts to posters and QR codes. Get creative and inventive…who do you want to hear from? Where do they frequent (both physically and online) and what are they into?
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 a few minutes to write a catchy link headline…the engagement starts from the first moment they see your promotion!
There’s no denying the power of the smart phone! With full-fledged browsers and ever-increasing wireless data speeds, the future of online activity is mobile.
This is good news for online engagement. People have a few minutes while on transit or sitting in a cafe…this is a great time to get people’s opinion. From the isolated comfort of their homes people are mostly into family time or watching TV…when out in the world, they’re more likely to be in the right head space to think about their opinions on what they’re seeing.
Furthermore, the issues that are the subject of the engagement itself are more prevalent and visible when people see them. Take advantage of this and promote and engage people with their smart phones, tablets and tethered laptops!
Long-term campaign, not a single event
Despite all these advances in technology and familiarity with online tools and activity, sometimes you may not if you don’t get a tidal wave of visitors in the first few weeks, even with your best 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.’
This is an exciting time for online community engagement, and the internet is proving to be an amazing, democratizing force. We are in the infancy of it’s development and yet it is exploding in popularity and opportunity, revolutionizing the way people contribute to the municipal public consultation process.