How taking the conversation online transformed engagement in the City of Kingston, Ontario
Get Involved Kingston, the City of Kingston’s new engagement hub, has seen 6000 registered participants tuning in to have their say on local projects and priorities. Complementing the City’s offline participation opportunities, Get Involved Kingston’s online engagement has further opened up new dimensions in how the community and City staff talk about projects and ideas.
Debbi Miller, Manager of Communications and Public Engagement, reveals how a centralized engagement hub and consistency across internal and external strategies have helped city and community engage better. “Having everything in one place is so important to everyone,” she says.
Centralized location for information and consistency key to success
From its inception, Get Involved Kingston has elevated community awareness about projects and participation. But with information and involvement opportunities available at a centralized location online, the community knows where to go to learn about, track, and review projects and issues that are important to them.
Consistency has been key to the ongoing success of the platform, a commitment underlined by the distinct brand created for the featured projects. Early in the development stage, the City adopted a strategy for consistent structure, elements, style, and information across projects to address the needs of participants and City staff. In addition to helping the community get a clear picture, this approach provided staff with a ready understanding of what a new project would need. With everyone on the same page, staff and residents could know what to expect and where to go.
Kingston’s Public Engagement Framework underscores
Kingston’s public consultations, online and offline, look to the vision outlined by the City’s Public Engagement Framework. Passed in October 2017, the Framework addresses the Open Government priority of transparency and citizen engagement in the City’s Strategic Plan 2015-2018.
The Framework supports and shapes a consistent approach to engagement across the organization. As a guiding document, it sets out why, how and when the City plans to consult the public. It outlines principles, roles, responsibilities, expectations, and tools for all those involved: City staff and council, residents, and other local stakeholders.
The City initially pursued the development of the Framework in recognition of the importance of public engagement for better decisions and community buy-in. The process of developing the policy document reflected this purpose as it involved extensive consultations with residents, corporation employees, and councils. In addition to this, further conversations on the development of an information and awareness
Why Kingston decided to take the conversation online
Home to a diverse set of people who couldn’t always be available for in-person events, Kingston had already rolled out online surveys to get inputs on the development of the Framework. The consultations around the Framework revealed that residents would welcome an online platform where they could weigh in on relevant and important issues at their convenience.
Without a centralized place for online engagement, conversations, surveys
How did the City prepare to engage online?
Kingston took the conversation online with an 18-month pilot project, in a bid to be sure that the tool was right for the community and could provide the necessary capabilities.
In the run up to the launch, all departments were provided with demonstrations and awareness sessions to help staff across the corporation get a clear picture of the initiative. Heavy users in communications and public engagement roles were equipped with training sessions.
Key City staff and decision-makers undertook IAP2 training to help create the approach that would guide public engagement. The City’s internal engagement group continues to meet regularly to discuss practices, learnings, and how engagement can be consistently improved across the corporation. Subject matter experts, neighborhood associations, and the community engagement network have also played their roles in connecting stakeholders to projects and keeping everyone in the loop.
An initial internal concern with the prospect of an online platform was that it would be one more place for community queries and discussions that staff would need to track. However, when questions were addressed on the platform, it allowed others to see the responses, and helped better inform the community.
Kingston signed up and stayed tuned
Another concern was around the need to register participants on surveys. However, this proved valuable to the City for the following reasons. Registrations enabled a database for engagement, allowing the City to keep residents informed on participation opportunities and project developments via email. Residents no longer had to search for opportunities to get involved. Staying in the conversation was simplified with notifications on new projects delivered directly into inboxes. Residents indicated that they did like to be kept informed by email, and the database allowed the City to act on this.
The platform caters to approximately 6,000 registered participants, a number achieved with the help of three separate campaigns inviting the community to register and join the conversation. With over 24,000 site visits recorded in the first 14 months of going online, this approach continues to activate community participation.
While participants can count on a weekly heads-up on new projects going online, staying connected also calls for a balance in the frequency of notifications sent out by email. Participants can expect a maximum of one email per week, announcing more than one project if necessary. The engagement team remains conscious of striking this balance when there are numerous projects going out in the same week.
How EngagementHQ brought new strengths to the City’s consultations
Launched to complement the City’s offline participation opportunities, Get Involved Kingston has opened up new dimensions in how the community and City staff talk about projects and ideas.
Surveys remain an important element of the platform, but the City has begun to tap into the potential of other tools such as the Q&A enabled by the platform. The platform allows projects to be saved online where they can be easily accessed to inform the community. Both residents and staff continue to explore the visual and information capabilities of the platform. EngagementHQ also allowed the engagement team to map community participation across the city to address wider outreach and involvement.
What has the alignment of online and offline participation opportunities brought to public engagement in Kingston? How did engaging early and often with those most interested and affected impact the conversation?
To learn more about how Kingston crafted a consistent and effective set of engagement strategies, tune in to our podcast.