The Business Case For Online Citizen Engagement

Building the business case for online citizen engagement is the first critical step in getting your organisation into the online space.

The specific nature of the arguments you pursue will depend on the nature of your boss and your organisation. Deciding whether to frame the value proposition in terms of value add or protection from risk will be driven by a deep understanding of what makes your organisation tick. Each of the ten arguments presented below can be re-framed to work for the optimist or the pessimist.

1. Save money (on expensive F2F processes)

We’re not advocating that you stop running face-to-face(F2F) community engagement processes. We would NEVER do this. Online community engagement processes should add to the robustness of your broader community engagement methodology NOT replace it.

What we are saying is that face-to-face processes are necessarily expensive; for example, you might need to hire a hall or a marquee, pay for printed collateral or catering. But the really big expense is staff overtime, or time off in lieu and/or consultant time.

So, if you are running a series of face-to-face events, why not replace one or two with an online space. For clients using EngagementHQ on an unrestricted use license, the marginal cost of setting up a unique project consultation page approaches zero as the platform is used more intensively. There will still be local costs in terms of staff time for the page setup and ongoing management, but it will be a fraction of the cost of organising and attending a face-to-face gathering.

2. Save money (on expensive promotional campaigns)

Another major expense for community engagement programs is the cost of recruiting participants using traditional promotional strategies. The beauty of online community engagement is that you can build your database of participants through time. And, each time you launch a new project you can send out a quick email to let your stakeholders know about it (subject to spam rules of course). Depending on the nature of projects you are consulting on, it takes very little time to amass a significant participant database. If you have been strategic in the nature of projects you are consulting on, you should have a reasonable demographic spread, thus giving you a head start on getting a broad view of community sentiment.

Note: I’m not suggesting that you don’t do any traditional promotion. You should and indeed you must, for BOTH statutory and strategic reasons. You want to continually build and refresh the database. Inevitably people will drop off your list over time. Also, each new consultation is an opportunity to expand the breadth of your reach and fill out the demographic profile of the database.

3. Save staff resources (on time-consuming F2F processes)

Let’s say you are lucky enough to have a huge project budget and paying for staff overtime and contractor fees for evening and weekend work is not a problem. Lucky you! It’s nevertheless highly likely that your staff still have limited time during the day to get all of the things done that they need to get done. Face-to-face processes take a lot of organisation. The logistics alone soak up valuable time and energy. Facilities checking, contractor liaison, collateral production, team training, the list of time soaks is long and tedious.

Online engagement reduces the number of tasks you have to complete to get your consultation process started significantly. Yes, you still need to spend the time thinking through the objectives, expectations and stakeholders of the engagement process. And yes, you may devote significant time to producing digital collateral, for example videos, but only if budget (both time and dollars) allows. Overall, engaging online is far less resource intensive than face-to-face methods.

4. Save staff time (on analysis of consultation outcomes)

Another significant cost of face-to-face consultations are the time it takes to make sense of all of the data you gather from the field. This generally comes into the office in the form of a mixture of butchers paper, sticky notes, dots on maps, surveys data sheets, notes pages, personal notes books; the list goes on. Unsurprisingly, critical information often goes amiss (or in the bin!).

Engaging online collates and protects this critical information. The raw data is permanently hosted on EngagementHQ and can be transferred to your organisational archives at any time. The data is also presented in summary form in many instances to help dramatically reduce the time required for interpretation and analysis. And, the data is preserved in its raw form rather than in summary form (as interpreted by one staff member) which means it can be revisited at any time for analysis; even months or years after the consultation process.

5. Reduce organisational risk (of hearing from a small section of the community)

From day one, this has been my personal motivation for engaging online. Too often, when I was involved in various public gatherings during weekday evenings or on weekends, I observed the same archetypes attending those meetings over and over again. Older, crankier men were very well represented. Younger parents and younger people generally were almost inevitably underrepresented.

We have seen many occasions when clients have run “community reference groups” around particular projects. The groups are used to gather a range of opinions from the community. Except, of course, that they don’t. Instead, they gather the opinions of the few people who have the time and inclination to attend multiple meetings. And so, the clients ask us to set up online spaces to test the mood of the broader public. Inevitably the issues, thoughts, feelings and sentiment are very different in the online space. I don’t argue that it is better or necessarily more correct than a face-to-face CRG, but it is always different, and therefore, useful. CRGs can sometimes come to believe that they truly represent broader community opinion. It is useful to challenge this belief. More problematically, CRGs that are stacked with people of a particular view may also like to assert their role in the decision-making process, sometimes to their benefit and the detriment of those with a different opinion. It is good to put a mirror up to this kind of behavior.

Government organisations (whether Councils, State or Federal agencies), Councillors and Ministers of the Crown are used to being lobbied. If the lobby group is convincing, connected, persistent and savvy, they will often win the day simply because they have been so successful in “owning” the discursive space around the subject. They effectively exclude other voices from being heard; to the point of shouting down opponents at community meetings. Engaging online overcomes this power imbalance by creating a transparent and accessible space for anyone and everyone to contribute without fear of retribution. We have seen many instances where a previously silent community has taken the opportunity to voice an opinion contrary to a noisy minority who have laid claim to representing an issue for a very long time.

6. Reduce organisational risk (of being mocked for being sooo last Tuesday)

For anybody who has been absorbed in War and Peace for the past ten years, the internet has landed. In 2011, 90% of Australian businesses and 79% of Australian homes had internet access. And numbers are still going up. In 2014, 9.6 million out of 12 million phones forecast to be sold will be Smart Phones. That means that pretty much everyone is on the net at home, at work, and on the go. There is a very clear expectation that all business can be done online. Which means that if you’re not engaging online, you’re putting your organisation at significant risk of looking just a little backward!

7. Reduce organisational risk (of losing control of the conversation)

In 2013, there were roughly 12 million Facebook users each month (and 9 million each day!) and over 2 million active Twitter users. Chances are very high that if you aren’t hosting conversations about important local issues, then these platforms are…. without your involvement, input, management or moderation. Ignoring social media is not a solution. When the proverbial hits the fan, social networks are unlikely to ignore you. At which point you have lost all control of the conversation.

Getting in early and establishing a well managed and moderated online feedback portal gives you a chance to frame the conversation and put all of the relevant information in front of the community, before they get the wrong end of the stick, whip themselves into a frenzy and stop listening. A well-moderated space also ensures you hear from a wider cross-section of the community than would be the case in a “free-for-all” Facebook Page.

8. Reduce organisational risk (of focusing on issues of no importance to your stakeholders)

It would seem to be a reasonable logical proposition that if one doesn’t listen to one’s community, one can’t possibly know what is on said community’s (collective) mind. If you aren’t listening, you are either guessing or you don’t care. That isn’t to say that engaging online is the only way to listen to the community. But it is, I would argue, the most effective way to hear from the broadest possible cross-section of the community and, moreover, to hear from them in real time. Annual “satisfaction” surveys do not give you a chance to demonstrate responsiveness and actually address issues in good time.

Also, organisations are made up of people. People with particular interests, passions and proclivities. It is not at all uncommon for these passions to result in a blinkered state in which nothing matters other than the issue upon which their attention is focused. Everything else is of secondary importance, if it is acknowledged at all. Organisational openness, agility and responsiveness becomes more difficult when this condition is endemic.

9. Increase community ownership (of organisational plans and strategies)

This could just as easily be re-framed as “reduce the organisational risk of community backlash”. This argument is not strictly limited to engaging online, but I would argue that it is amplified when you engage online because of the larger number of people you generally touch through a web presence than you do through one or a series of face-to-face processes.

Community engagement practitioners have argued for decades that community involvement throughout a decision-making process is important as an end in itself because, even if the decision is not what they were looking for, they at least see that the process has been fair. This leave participants with a better feeling about governance, transparency and democracy (in broad terms) than when decisions are made behind closed doors. Good processes also expose participants to the full diversity of opinions and helps to place their personal opinion into a broader context.

10. Drive cultural change (across the organisation)

Finally, engaging online sends a crystal clear message to staff members of an organisation that is used to hiding from the public that the business model is changing. The doors are, metaphorically at least, being thrown open to public gaze. The strength of this change depends on the nature of the specific feedback tools being used to provide feedback as well as the nature of comment moderation. It is still possible to carefully manage any risks (perceived and real) through the choice of tools and methods while taking the organisation on a journey from a closed shop to an open house.

Photo Credits: Jo Collier

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