Over half of the world’s population is online and adoption continues to grow exponentially. People increasingly turn to the internet for information, to share their opinions and to discuss the issues that affect them.
Governments looking to better understand what their citizens care about need to maintain a strong online presence and channel civic discussions productively. Engaging citizens digitally should be at the forefront of an organization’s communication plan, in addition to face-to-face activities.
Communications teams are often tasked with determining the right software for their organization’s online engagements. Careful evaluation and selection of the right technology platform can save public officials from facing challenges down the line that are otherwise preventable.
Seven Big Challenges
Some of the big challenges communications teams need to consider when evaluating online community engagement platforms are:
- Limited IT Expertise on Team
- Ensuring Data Security and Establishing Trust
- Managing Budgets Effectively
- Sustained Customer Support
- Software Ease of Use
- Breadth of Software Functionality
- Prior Success with Civic Engagement
Challenge 1: Limited IT Expertise on Team
The ultimate goal of any online community engagement platform is to empower communications teams to do what they do best – increase and improve the connection their citizens have with their governments.
Software that needs advanced IT expertise within the team to install technology modules, take care of ongoing maintenance or to re-configure technology on a regular basis, is going to distract from the main goal of community engagement.
Solution: Look for a Fully Managed Technology Platform
Once you short-list your community engagement software providers, get a clear overview of what technology operations your team will be expected to manage. Make sure that internal IT and technical professionals are not required for the day-to-day operations of the software platform.
Typically, choosing a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) provider will give your team all of the benefits of using an online community engagement platform without any of the technology management headaches.
Challenge 2: Ensuring Data Security and Establishing Trust
Before your citizens gain trust in your platform, you will first need to trust it as well. During the procurement process, it is often possible for your team to be bombarded with a lot of technical and non-technical information regarding the systems being evaluated.
In this day and age, citizens and governments are well aware of data breaches and the need for greater cybersecurity. Unfortunately, for the non-technical layperson, information about the security protocols in place can be overwhelming and you may not be sure what to look for in an online platform.
How do you peel back the sales pitch and determine the most trustworthy platform? What do you look for when evaluating the level of security offered by an online platform?
Solution: Select a Robust Platform that meets Global Security and Privacy Standards
The ISO 27001 is an international quality standard for security of Information Management Systems. It sets a high standard for organizations looking to implement robust data management processes to protect theirs’ and their customers’ data effectively.
Selecting a provider who is ISO 27001 accredited goes a long way to establishing trust in the ongoing security of the platform.
It is not mandatory to achieve this certification and only a few committed organizations invest in obtaining this certification due to the time and resources required to create and maintain secure internal data processes.
Additionally, ISO 27001 certified organizations are rigorously audited annually by a globally accredited third-party. This is to ensure that their information management processes continue to get evolve to respond to the always changing cyber threat landscape.
On top of this, organizations that stay on top of global data privacy regulations should be preferred. The European Union’s (EU) General Data Privacy Regulation (GDPR) came into effect May 25th, 2018 and affects the personal data of all EU citizens. Companies that proactively achieve compliance with such regulations demonstrate their dedication to data privacy and security.
Challenge 3: Managing Budgets Effectively
If you are a public organization, you are managing the responsibility of allocating taxpayer money to the areas that will most benefit them. How do you ensure your platform purchase is cost-effective for you and your citizens?
Solution: Determine Cost-Effectiveness of Platform
Careful selection of the right platform, keeping in mind potential future requirements, will ensure your team will have a sustained and cost-effective online presence that your users will appreciate.
There are several things to consider to ensure the cost-effectiveness of the platform:
- Select a scalable platform that provides you with a range of options and flexibility, from a choice of engagement methods to being able to control the makeup of the consultation group.
- Ensure there are no hidden costs for extensive usage. You want to engage more not less!
- Check that the platform you select has a good track record for functionality improvements with the clear ability to invest in future upgrades.
- Make sure that you are not having to pay extra for software development services. The license fee should cover these. If you select a SaaS vendor as mentioned above, these costs are built-in to the license fee in such a way that they are shared across the customer base making it more cost-effective for all.
- The more clients a provider has the more value they can typically deliver.
Beware of platforms that seem inexpensive. These may suffer from very limited feature functionality, be unreliable, lacking in security, with no track record of success, etc. There are certainly enough examples of software providers advertising extremely low prices only to charge additional fees for software development that can potentially wreak havoc on limited budgets.
Challenge 4: Sustained Customer Support
You and your team need to be well supported if you are to achieve your main goals – reaching out and connecting with your communities. Taking into account a regular team turnover rate, new colleagues will require training and basic hand-holding in the early days. Additionally, you may receive ad hoc questions from senior leadership about the platform, based on the visibility level of various campaigns and projects being highlighted on the platform.
How do you ensure that you and your team are supported by technical experts on a regular and timely basis in all scenarios?
Solution: Evaluate the Service Offering
Evaluate the community engagement platform vendor’s service offering beyond the initial set-up stages. Timely maintenance and responsiveness will be required to manage your day-to-day operations. Ensure you have a service agreement in place that meets your needs.
A good vendor will offer highly responsive customer service and have a knowledgeable support team. This will go a long way towards achieving great outcomes for your community.
Challenge 5: Software Ease of Use
Your goal is to improve your connection with your community. You want to use the lion’s share of available time and resources building this connection rather than learning the ins and outs of a particular software solution.
How can you ensure that the software platform you choose is easy enough to use so it helps you achieve your goal rather than getting in the way of it?
Solution: Look for a User-Friendly System
Get a brief walk-through of the software features from each provider you are evaluating and test it out on a non-technical general administrative employee.
They will need to be able to easily conduct simple tasks such as posting quick updates, creating new engagement opportunities for the community such as discussion forums, and responding to queries through the system. Make sure that the system follows familiar screen interactivity patterns as the other web software you and your team use. This can save your organization hours of time, effort, and resources that would have otherwise been wasted in struggling with basic operations.
Assuming your organization’s network connectivity is effective, you should also test the speed at which your team member can navigate the software – and if they experience a crash or unexpected stalling. The speed and stability of the software platform is also an essential component of it’s usability.
Challenge 6: Breadth of Software Functionality
The ultimate goal of any online community engagement platform is to empower communications teams to engage, listen and understand their communities.
How do you ensure that the software has all of the functionality you need to accomplish this?
Solution: Look for a Software Platform with All of the Features You Need
Get an overview of the features and capabilities of the software platform. Some key features could be:
- A key requirement is that you are able to engage with your community in a wide variety of ways; ranging from polling, surveys, idea generation, gathering community stories, place-based engagement and so on. This will allow you to engage across the full spectrum depending on evolving and specific consultation needs over time.
- Check that you can target consultations. A certain project may require the input of your entire community whereas, at other times, for specialized projects, an online discussion led by a panel of related experts may be required.
- Check that you have engagement specific reporting available that goes beyond traffic numbers to inform you on what your community is saying, as well as to measure the effectiveness of your efforts.
- Make sure that the online presence itself is visually engaging for the community.
It can be difficult to transition between systems so making sure that the platform you choose has the broadest feature set of the ones you are evaluating to future-proof your investment.
Challenge 7: Prior Success with Public Engagement
The requirements of a public organization when communicating with its citizens are unique. A higher level of data protection and security, online facilitation of community discussions, the ability to organize and retrieve specific data on a timely basis, and user-friendly and customizable web platforms are preferred.
Your citizens want to know their voices are heard.
Solution: Established Success with Public Engagement
There are many providers that offer a basic website and a survey function for example. These may be used in a private industry setting to disseminate basic information about a company’s products and services and allow customers to provide basic feedback. However, government organizations looking to activate their communities will need to strive for more. Facilitating productive discussions, running multiple campaigns, gathering data from their citizens and establishing the platform as a trusted and reliable source of information should be of utmost importance.
Request your online platform vendors to demonstrate their successes and history with government engagement. Was this platform built with public engagement in mind? Does their leadership understand the challenges faced when activating community discussions and involvement? Can they demonstrate flexibility by having worked with different types of public entities and successfully catering to them?
A thorough due diligence and evaluation of the track record of the company as well as their software offering will go a long way in ensuring you select the right online engagement platform for your needs.
Photo: Priscilla Du Preez/Unsplash