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Five reasons to open up your online community panel

We understand the allure of a closed online community panel to local authorities (a panel where only invited pre-registered community members get to comment on an issue). They are very administratively convenient and unlikely to spring any surprises on you. Despite this, we believe that there are better ways to engage your community. Here are some of the reasons why you should open up your online community panel.

1. Closed panels are never representative of the community

One of the main reasons organisations are drawn to having a community panel is that they are confident that they have a representative demographic mix on that panel. Personally I don’t feel adequately defined by my demographics. I am not the product of my race, postcode, gender and income. I am me and what makes me is much more complex than you can hope to capture in a demographic profile. One thing I would be unlikely to do is join a local authority’s panel to fill out repeat surveys on issues that might be of little interest to me. I don’t think I’m alone in this. In fact, I suspect people like me are in a majority in the community. But guess what? We are not represented on your panel at all!

2.  Closed panels are perceived as exclusive

Whilst I would not join a panel for repeat surveys – I value my time too highly – there are issues on which I am vocal and engaged.  These don’t come along every week but when they do I want to he heard.  I like to think I am as constructive and full of good ideas as the next person. A closed community panel excludes me from having a say when an issue matters to me. It takes away the ability to spontaneously engage and will encourage me to jump straight into protest mode because I am not being listened to.

3.  Closed panels carry the risk of major response bias

It has been well documented (e.g. Scottish Health Council User Panel Guidelines) that panel members come to associate themselves with the organisation over a period of time and to sympathise with them. This produces bias in the responses. The bias can be managed by turning over panel members, but many local authorities never do this (it’s hard enough to recruit people without throwing them out and trying to recruit a new lot) and simply have repeat conversations with the same people over and over again.

4.   Closed panels are risky because they will drive people to social media to talk about you rather than to you.

I alluded to this under 2. above. If I care deeply about an issue but only those who are members of a panel get to have a say, I will most likely go and protest elsewhere on the web – I’ll air my dissatisfaction on Facebook or Twitter, I might blog about it and if I am really passionate I might set up a Facebook page to organise other disaffected community members. It’s far easier to embrace these people from the outset than it is to chase around the web trying to keep tabs on what they are saying and trying to respond to their concerns.

5. Even members of these panels are rarely truly engaged

In my experience, closed community panels tend to involve the community member going through what can be a lengthy sign-up process and then being sent surveys to complete.  This is a market research methodology and not community engagement. To engage is to ‘involve’ and for me that implies a bit more than filling out the odd survey. Surveys certainly have their place within an engagement process, but there might also be room for discussion, storytelling and education – a two-way process.

I do not mean this as a slight to the market research industry. There are times when market research is exactly what is needed, but I do think it is a mistake to confuse market research and community engagement.

The Solution – Move to an Inclusive Community Panel

If you have already invested heavily in developing a community panel it is understandable that you would be reluctant to cast that aside. We wouldn’t suggest that you do. We recommend the approach that was taken by Willoughby Council in Sydney who used their panel to facilitate lively online discussions which were open to both panel members and others. If you are already using EngagmentHQ then all you need to do is bulk load your current panel members into the database and then invite new participants to sign up to join in on whatever issue they are interested in.

At the end of the process you are able to check on the demographic mix from which the responses have come and you can balance the sample then, either by giving more weight to some response groups or, better still, by going out and seeking to actively redress any demographic imbalances with your face to face engagement efforts. For example, if you have an under-representation of under 25s focus some engagement activities around college facilities.

By taking this approach, you get the best of both worlds. An active and growing panel who you can invite to participate in multiple issues but also the ability for other community members to engage with you when they need to.

This is an Inclusive Community Panel – open to all but meeting your administrative needs.  Contact us if you would like to discuss setting up an Inclusive Community Panel.

Photo credit: community meeting by San José Library

Thanks for getting all the way to the bottom! Subscribe to our monthly digest newsletter if you’d like to be kept up to date about community engagement practice globally. Take a look at our two product websites: EngagementHQ if you need a complete online engagement solution, and BudgetAllocator if you need a participatory budgeting solution. Or get in touch if you have a story idea you think is worth sharing.

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