Capturing the Best Elements of In-Person Engagement for an Effective Digital First Approach

What is it that is so great about in-person engagement? 

I have begun many professional trainings and presentations with this question directed to staff and consultants in the field of community engagement; I have ended many public processes and meetings with a modified question set about what the individual enjoyed about a particular in-person event and how their needs were met or left unattended afterward.  Recently, I’ve partnered with staff from Logan Simpson and we’ve compared notes on these questions.  We have compiled a list that appears to be the most frequent responses:  personal connection, ability to get 1-on-1 time with experts and staff to address concerns directly (often this is higher ranking staff than may be attained by phone or email), the sense that your community is involved and is invested (you are a part of the whole working toward common good), thoughtful discussion, the act of participating (placing a pin and seeing it or hearing your comment called back out to the group), opportunity to build a relationship with others, socialization, and validation.

The opposite question, intended to highlight the annoyances of in-person engagement often merits things like:  event/question/process was a waste of my time, parking issues, food complaints (none, not the right options, too little, too much, etc.), could have shared the information online, was not given an opportunity to participate, the decision is already made, communication was poor, no childcare, process was contrived to a pre-determined resolution, facilitator was biased.

Summarized, the good seems to fall into the feeling associated with a positive in-person event while the negative seems to fall into a set of conditions.  So, if we know what it is people like about in-person engagement and we have a good handle on what they don’t like, it should be relatively easy to take the good and leave the bad when we move to the digital space.  After all, we already have a win with the parking complaints and we get to avoid the challenges of menu planning altogether.

Take the Good and Leave the Bad

If there were a golden rule of online engagement to come from just this amount of feedback, it would be two-part:  Use a variety of tools both to inform and to engage the community AND clearly communicate the process, and all its moving parts. This means multiple types of rich media should be employed to explain why a process is taking place and what the potential decisions may be—graphics, video, and text all combine to tell the full story.

  • Use video to build a personal connection between staff and participants.
  • Open your Q&A tool directly to that staff member so the community feels the one on one connection.
  • Use the timeline repetitively to help the community track process.
  • Provide both long-form results and visual summary results from surveys and discussions along the way.

In other words, make on-ramps and off-ramps easy for the public.  Don’t create an online space they need to check every day to keep up to date; that is not the participation you are really looking for anyway.

Use synchronous tools (those in which people are participating in real-time) as an embed into a larger and more robust ongoing dialogue (asynchronous tools) about the project and key decision-making points within it.  This allows those that have a limited time to choose how they most want to participate in the process.  For those who long to both be challenged by other views as well as those who look to have their own beliefs reinforced, there will be the social connection they prefer.

And There You Have It…

The City of Hurricane, Utah has partnered with Logan Simpson to put this golden rule into action on their site, Have Your Say Hurricane.

have your say hurricane

There are a variety of tools available for participation—all contained within one project page and also available a la carte for participation directly from the homepage.  This makes accessibility key for those that want to spend only a small amount of time or to participate in only one tool, as well as for those that want a deep dive.  A community assessment is completed with the Places tool by asking for areas that people love, need attention or have opportunity, to be equally identified and described.  Stories allow people to share narrative and can also be used to collect video and images from the public.  Values and visioning questionnaires really are short surveys that collect information to be used in later phases of the project.  By framing in this way, the community is creating together vs. starting out in a polarized discussion. Certainly, given the changing dynamics of the community, choices will ultimately have to be made and priorities put into place for various areas.  Atat this early stage, however, it is about collecting the many interests to later refine and connect with location.

Timelines are available on virtually every page and are shown in multiple ways; down the right side of the page in a “where are we” format as well as in the main body of the project page with color-coded phases and associated months of the year.  This allows for ultimate clarity in specific questions, including how long participation will be open as well as how the answers will be shared and utilized in time.

As an avid fan of Simon Sinek, it is very satisfying to see Hurricane’s Become an Expert page with background information, previous plans, concurrent plans of impact, and most of all—a deep dive into WHY a general plan update matters and who it impacts.  This is a very simple approach to helping community members understand impact ripple effects, and most of all, it allows them to see the value of their time and input.  Perhaps the most critical component of the in-person experience that we can readily bring to the digital world…making sure people feel valued and involved.

To take a deeper dive, we will be joining Logan Simpson and Unlocking Government in a webinar hosted by APA on October 30, 2020, at 1 pm Eastern. Register Today!

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