Generally speaking, community engagement is built on the democratic idea that everyone who is affected by an issue that impacts their community should have a say in the decision making around it.
Although there’s no commonly agreed definition, essentially community engagement is about mutual decision making, where people, governments and organisations work collaboratively to create sustainable visions for their community’s future. For governments and organisations, it’s about working with and listening to communities to forge long term relationships and develop meaningful solutions to complex issues.
But, while many models and frameworks of public participation shape how to engage communities, much can depend on how these conversations happen, where they take place, and how they best include the diverse range of voices that have a stake in them.
Online community engagement brings added dimensions and benefits to decision making, building trust between governments and citizens and empowering community ownership in the shared responsibility for improving services, projects and programs.
Where traditional, face to face engagement has limited participants, online community engagement enables more people to have their say, at their convenience. A dedicated digital engagement space beyond the limitations of social media – with strident measures of data security that combat increasing community mistrust of social media – ensures everyone has safe access to make meaningful contributions to issues impacting their everyday life.
Online engagement in the planning stages of a project can facilitate more focussed outcomes. It can also minimise budgets that confront geographical confines particular to face to face engagement. And, unlike traditional engagement methods, it provides unparalleled opportunities to dive deeper into conversations beyond the immediate issue at hand.
It also brings diverse groups together, including hard to reach communities, providing access to often neglected perspectives and bringing marginalised voices into the conversation.
Unrepresented groups are often missing from engagement cohorts. Traditional, or face to face engagement activities can often be dominated by small groups of typically frequent participants, where issues can become prey to the same sounding voices. Other voices can go unheard or, more crucially, are missing from the conversation altogether. Equally, not everyone can make it to public meetings or speak up without hesitation in offline forums.
Online engagement provides a safe and accessible place for people to contribute to the conversation free from the limitations of a public forum. It brings diverse communities together including, hard to reach and disadvantaged groups, enabling marginalised and often excluded groups to be brought into the decision making process and the mainstream of the community.
Building positive relationships between and within communities has a flow on effect of strengthening relations between communities, governments and organisations to engender better informed decision making. The reach and accessibility of online engagement provides insights into the needs, priorities and capabilities of local communities and ensures investment is based on the expressed needs of the community. Through improved, open communications, too, it makes for better policy making. In short, for better, more informed decisions.
In the legitimate community support for decisions, moreover, online participation allows support for a decision to be developed with stakeholders before it is formally taken up. Embedded in the planning stages, it addresses risk management, tests project assumptions and scope, as well as proposed solutions. It gives due consideration for all stakeholders involved
Ensuring investment is based more on the community’s expressed needs, it empowers a sense of ownership and sharing responsibilities for improving quality of services, projects and programmes. With the ability to engage people with more resources, information and understanding, online engagement improves community capacity to understand issues and empowers communities to become subject matter experts. Diverse groups can opt in by choice on issues that have meaning to them. It also allows for opportunities to ask more meaningful questions, taking the conversation beyond the immediate problem at hand. Digital engagement allows local people to take control of issues important to them.
While there are challenges to selecting an online engagement platform, the provision of continuous engagement is advantageous in building trust between governments, organisations and the communities they represent. Counteracting the increasing lack of trust that characterises relationships between governments and citizens, open, continuous communications and deliberative methods/participatory processes ensures better responsiveness to the priorities and needs identified by local people. Continuous engagement activities can drive open communications and maintain regular contact unavailable to traditional engagement activities. This, in turn, increases trust between governments and the provision of services and programs based on community-determined needs and priorities.
Organisations, too, can tap into online community engagement to drive organisational change and bring people together to foster better collaboration. It can build participation, community knowledge and feedback into projects as a vital and sustainable way of doing things.
This creates a dialogue where diverse views can be given space and people, governments and organisations can gain insight into different perspectives and positions.
Here, tackling misconceptions around using digitally collected data, including myths around security and safety, further builds transparency.
With a dedicated online engagement space, moreover, organisations can ensure that the community is provided with high-quality authorised information and opportunities to ask questions. This is particularly crucial when there are sensitive or complex issues at hand.
While an organisation may approach a set of issues in a certain way, they may not always be able to see the related issues that may be less visible but equally, if not more, important to the community. Opening the conversation up can allow these underlying priorities and experiences to come to the forefront and inform better decisions for all involved. This can mean looking beyond the survey.
Engaging online allows for a wider, more diverse range of views, which provides new, relevant knowledge to contribute to decision making. Unpacking issues in greater detail, it paints a clearer picture of what the community wants and pertinent local issues. With tools and opportunities for a more collaborative, deeper dialogue, digital engagement fosters trust and unearths underlying tensions around issues and competing priorities for stakeholders.