One of the frequently missed opportunities in online engagement, is thinking outside of the prism of project-specific consultations and taking a more agile approach engagement activities.
In this article, I look at the difference between project-specific consultations and agile engagement strategies and make some suggestions about alternative ways to engage, listen and learn from you community.
What is a project specific consultation?
Firstly, let’s start by clarify what we mean by project specific consultations.
A project specific consultation is what we generally think of when we think of online engagement.
It is a single EngagementHQ project page centred around a very specific piece of work. It might be a policy review, open spaces planning, a development or infrastructure project or even a service delivery based engagement.
With the exception of community visioning and strategic planning consultations, these projects all have very specific stakeholder groups and are focussed on limited negotiable areas for community input.
They most likely have finite timelines for participation and at then end of the day, have the single goal of helping to inform a very immediate problem.
These types of engagements are also generally considered statutory conversations and sometimes done because of a requirement to engage.
While this is normal practice, and we should continue to do consultation for these reasons, what if we could extend this thinking in to other non-required areas of interest?
Put simply, if you could talk to your community about anything, what would you ask them?
Thinking about engagement in is purest form, as a process of talking, listening and learning without pretence or motivation, can be a powerful tool.
What agile engagement strategies can I use to help activate my database?
There are several agile engagement strategies which can help both activate databases and also help to build strong relationships with your community. Above all, we think theses suggestions are a great was to include your community in a broader range of conversations and to learn more about them and from them.
These conversations are a great way to equip your organisation with general insights and views of your community, which are intended to be used to advocate on their behalf. They are conducted as a series of regular surveys, polls or forum discussions and seen almost as ongoing community research. These conversations aren’t about delivering projects. They are about collecting an armoury of views on different issues, which can be used as a common understanding of how your community feels.
In this type of consultation you might ask your community about their attitudes to societal issues or problems, or how they feel about any range of topics which aren’t necessarily to do with your immediate needs and priorities or within your jurisdiction to control.
The reason this can be so powerful, is because you get the opportunity to learn where your community stands on these issues and use this information to advocate for their views when the opportunity arrives.
When selecting these issues they should have a broad appeal and be generally relevant to a large part of your community.
Begin your questions with: How does? What is your experience of? What are your views towards? Do you agree with?
These types of consultations can be highly valuable to your organisation and show your community that you are interested in acting on their behalf.
The Monthly conversation
This is a very deliberate strategy to select a key topic each month for discussion.
The monthly conversation becomes part of your communications tool-kit and you use these conversations, not only to learn from your community, but also to drive regular participation.
These conversations, are generally forum discussions which encourage people to express their views on issues of your choosing.
A strategy like this becomes part of ‘the deal’ you propose to your community when you ask them to sign up for your site.
By doing this, you help to create a stronger value proposition for joining your engagement portal and get the opportunity to set expectations about the types of discussions people can get involved in.
This type of commitment can also be used strategically for your organisation. Over the course of a year you can set yourself a range of topics to investigate or engage your community with, which might align with future projects.
This is a really soft way of engaging on potential future projects without signalling when an official consultation will begin. Again, this is a community research technique, so don’t forget to promote the outcomes of each conversation back to your community.
Extend engagement to community development activities
Often we see that community engagement and community development are two seperate things. One tends to focus more on the ‘process’ of engaging whilst the latter looks after building and nurturing communities.
We rarely see online engagement spaces setup purely for community development purposes.
This is unfortunate, since by it’s very nature, there are many facets of community development which require ongoing conversations and engagement with stakeholders.
This strategy recommends we unbundle our engagement activities to include spaces for community development.
Using EHQ, it’s easy to setup spaces for different priority areas of your community development portfolio and continue to work closely with them in both face-to-face and also online.
This change of thinking again allows you to facilitate discussions, build capacity and start micro-communities online.
Which in-turn, helps to drive participation and activate your database.
Play around with topical, ridiculous and facile issues
Using topics of interest, current events, news as well as the more ridiculous issues in your community is another great strategy for activating your database to engage online.
Not always taking things so seriously as well as leveraging off recent events or news can have a motivating effects on members of your community.
Whether it be about the local football teams win on the weekend, the coldest day of the winter or even the best things to cook on the BBQ on a public holiday, these are issues which resonate with communities and often everyone has an opinion on.
Using these topics also helps to bring personality to your engagement activities, reinforces your social conscience and reduces the transactional feel which can often creep in to online engagement activities.
Why not try using some of these strategies individually or if you’re feeling really brave (and get approval) try working all of them into your engagement activities. Don’t forget, as with all consultation, a strong communications strategy is essential in driving traffic to your site.
If you have any other ideas about agile engagement strategies, feel free to leave some comments on this post.