Digital First Community Engagement for Local Government in the COVID-19 Era

Local government agencies carry a wide gamut of responsibilities and duties as all organizations and individuals scramble to create and institutionalize response and modified business plans that meet safety guidelines for COVID-19 response.  Depending on the specific relationship of local public health agencies to city, county and state governments, the roles and reporting methods vary across the country. Certainly, police and fire departments carry a heavy burden as they support medical staff and respond to 911 calls for assistance. All local governments will play a secondary role in support, information sharing, continuity of basic services and special projects.

It is this secondary role that we will assess through the lens of online community engagement. We will identify key concepts for effective digital community engagement as we move through this pandemic and cope with massive changes, sickness, and loss. We will also discuss adjusting to new budgetary realities and inherent decision-making, for communities.

Cities have created engagement projects specific to COVID-19 that inform and educate the public. These highlighted projects have taken a proactive, positive and partnering approach, in addition to the factual sharing of information between other agencies, private businesses, its own departments, and the public. Some are still looking to find their footing on how to navigate communication and engagement during this challenging time.  These case studies will prove helpful.  

City of Tigard, Oregon

The City of Tigard has created an amazing set of resources for its general population and business community. The city hosts a general question and answer tool about COVID-19 that allows the public to set the agenda in the conversation. In some instances, the questions are about city services, partner resources or safety information. In all circumstances, the city is a conduit of factual information. They dispel myths or rumors and create a one-stop location for community members to get their questions answered during a very confusing time. 

Tigard CARES is a commercial assistance and relief for economic stability fund that can be applied for in both English and Spanish, through EngageTigard. Great care has been given to answering common questions and providing specific staff member names and emails so the public can easily retrieve information as basic as a business license number, required for the application. Beyond applications, a series of roundtable forums are hosted for small businesses to share ideas and resources among themselves.

Shop Tigard is a project designed to pull in general community participation in an effort to support local businesses.  The Places tool (a tool that allows the public to drop pins on a map to share information via text or image) has been utilized as a crowd-sourced map for the public to share which businesses are open/ Along with public participation, businesses, themselves, can share their own stories of creativity regarding the safe delivery of goods and services.  

City of Mercer Island, Washington

Accessibility of information is a priority for the City of Mercer Island. The city has created buttons to guide various target populations to factual information created for them.  They stress multimodal communications as the norm and utilize the City Council and Police Chief to convey the most urgent and serious messages to the community. All messages are done with compassion and connection to create a sense of partnering.  Online pages have a mix of documents, links, videos, and infographics but are designed by topic and population for easy access. The city highlights closures and cancellations, business resources, small business support and multiple links on how to manage unemployment during the economic crisis that is also COVID-19.  Let’s Talk Mercer Island serves a hub of all types of information with easy to find video broadcasts and media releases also stored in the space.

City of Arvada, Colorado

The power of positivity is on display in the City of Arvada as they balance the use of their digital resources. Speak Up Arvada is the warehouse for official information related to health directives and updates regarding city facilities and services.  The engagement site is utilized for social connection while social distancing orders are enacted during COVID-19. There, residents are encouraged to share ideas for staying social while physically separated.  The message of the site was inspired by chalk drawings completed by kids in the community and the simple message, “We can do this.” The engagement site allows individuals to recognize and celebrate one another for work being done toward the common good.  There is also a private form that allows individuals in need to share their challenges directly with city staff who will then work to connect needs with resources. 

 The Arvada Police Department has long been known as a leader in the realm of community policing. But, they have taken on a new level of community engagement amid this crisis. For example, they assisted in the organization of a birthday celebration, COVID-19 style, for a resident turning 102.  In so doing, members of the department modeled safety protocols and shared recommendations. Loading videos into the engagement site is a great way to increase interest and participation. The city has created multiple ways for the community to go back and forth between their website, Let’s Talk Arvada, and the most critical public health links. There are ample recommendations present in all places, clearly identifying the city’s primary focus and mission. 

Continuity of Other Local Government Services and Projects

Most cities continue basic service operations with little fanfare or public input.  It’s refreshing to see communities encourage public appreciation for responsible staff in their engagement spaces. In regard to the continuity of other projects, there is a wide range of plans and prioritization. Because of fears regarding potential budget reductions, some have been motivated to complete phases of projects currently underway or to finalize later phase projects altogether. Others have taken a more latent approach, with pauses serving as viable short-term options.

However, no city should be moving forward without making every effort to keep the community aware and engaged. Because of this crisis, we are recommending more strategic communications about projects with specific questions posed to the public after short information sequences.  This may take the shape of an infographic or short video to convey information, with a question that follows. This approach will produce more meaningful feedback to keep projects on time and moving, as opposed to lengthy surveys. As always, it is recommended that social media be used to promote an engagement platform that measures all of the public input provided. This approach allows for easy staff reports generated from work-at-home environments. 

Projects from planning and development to construction and implementation are underway on close to 600 EngagementHQ sites globally.  During this crisis, just as at any other time, established best practice is to describe the purpose of the project. Be sure to elaborate on why it is critical to continue moving forward currently, and how the public can weigh in on the decisions that can be influenced by them. Sharing timelines is critical as the process will be harder for the public to follow in what is, essentially, a 24-hour news cycle. It is best to use a variety of tools. A big variety allows there to be something convenient and of interest to almost any personality type engaging on the site.

Tool variety leads to speedy, but thorough, participation. For instance, quantitative questions of a survey may appeal to some while a virtual sticky note allowing image sharing will appeal to others, despite the questions being the same. Public forums should most closely resemble a roundtable or world café, common to in-person engagement. But, they require a bit more staff participation to weed out misinformation and to ask meaningful follow-up questions. Scheduling sessions with the public in the online space can be very useful for all parties involved. Since people are not available in offices to meet and have conversations, an open question/answer tool for every project is recommended. By answering questions publicly, staff can reduce repetition and tag the answers for easy search by the public. While multiple live stream tools are being embedded into EngagementHQ as an alternative to live events, short videos can also be stored on the site before or after a live broadcast. Short videos increase the likelihood that participants retain the information provided because they are more engaging. We recommend they are kept under two minutes. Lastly, engagement tools can then be utilized for feedback and reaction.

An emerging common practice is using online engagement sites for City Council continuity of operations.  Some officials will be building on and around existing resources like television stations or live streaming.  Others will be starting from scratch to create a virtual mechanism for the public to connect to its elected officials before, during and after they carry out official business as a public body. Guidelines for how the public should expect comments and input to be utilized are critical for good process and managing expectations. A demonstration site has been created to identify a variety of tools and how they can be utilized for this purpose.

COVID-19 Emerging Best Practices

  1. Digital engagement is more important than ever in the COVID-19 environment and it requires a different approach than in-person events.
  2. There should be clarity in the role of the engagement site during COVID-19. An understanding of the intended experience of the community is critical for setting up good communications and community interaction. 
  3. Given that the pandemic is evolving daily, so should the digital space. The site should reflect current decision-making processes and continuity plans. Use tools and create spaces that allow for maximum flexibility in design and both staff and community updates.
  4. Utilizing digital tools successfully requires good communication and process description, as well as the deployment of a variety of tools to meet a variety of needs.
  5. Design for digital-first engagement should include short videos, simple slides, and rich infographics to share information readily and be followed by pro-active specific questions.

Recommendations for Continuity of Projects

  1. In ever-changing circumstances, cities can be a great resource for both providing and collecting updated information. Creating spaces that clearly distinguish purpose and opportunity to share is critical.
  2. Communicate clearly about why projects are continuing and how prioritization has been determined.  Begin online budget discussions sooner rather than later. Let the community weigh in on the continuity of projects when feasible. 
  3. Serve as a facilitator and host (even digitally) for community conversations, allowing for both the public and staff to update information as it evolves. 
  4. Creating clear and precise digital alternatives to speaking at council meetings brings the public to your engagement space weekly. Utilize a variety of tools for gathering input based on how input will be used by the governing body. Use open tools when possible so that participants can read the feedback of others.

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