Technology Paves the Way for Online Community Engagement
Gore District Council is one of the smaller local authorities in New Zealand. With a population of around 12,400, a large portion of the people are aging and includes a significant amount of rural and farming residents. The council was accustomed to communicating with an older audience through paper-based communications. They would regularly print off thousands of copies of a 20-plus-page document and deliver it to residents. These practices colored their perception of what people expected and the council assumed the majority of people preferred paper-based communications.
However, as time went on, more people adopted smart technology, and even those working in rural farming areas were already accustomed to using it. The council desired a way to reach more people, house community project information in one place, and gather actionable data to make more informed decisions.
THE SWITCH TO DIGITAL-FIRST
Giving More People a Voice in Public Projects
When the council began looking at a digital-first community engagement approach, buy-in from was not an issue, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. The council knew they needed to reach people in ways that didn’t involve knocking on their doors or attending a meeting. Additionally, the timing was right due to previous large projects that didn’t successfully engage the community and residents expressed their unhappiness around the lack of input.
The only hesitation the council had centered around managing a robust program with few staff and resources. However, once they realized that the EngagementHQ software platform doesn’t have to take months to set up and begins to produce results quickly after launch, their misgivings disappeared. They were quickly invested in a digital-first public involvement strategy.
“My mantra became: whatever we create, we create it for digital first,” said Sonia Gerken, Communications and Marketing Manager at Gore District Council. “And then once we have the content, we can turn it into whatever we like, where it’s needed.”
True Engagement, Real Data, and Repeated Success
Gore District Council launched their community engagement site entitled, Let’s Talk Kōrero Mai Gore District, just as they were approaching the start of several projects that would require citizen engagement. The larger projects included a new library and community center, a wastewater system renewal, and a new bridge over a waterway.
They enjoyed watching the site traffic grow as they launched new project pages. They appreciated their new tangible data regarding how many people were interested in a project and who they were.
“We saw really strong engagement, and qualitative info. Really well-thought-out reasons, feedback, and submissions, not the type you tend to get on social media,” said Sonia.
Within seven months, Let’s Talk Kōrero Mai received 4,500 visits and had an engagement rate of 3.35%, which is considered a ‘good’ to ‘high’ rate based on global industry standards. More importantly, community members who hadn’t been reached before were empowered to get involved and easily share their feedback with the new, user-friendly platform.
PROMOTION AND CONNECTION
Spreading the Word in the Community
To promote their new site and the project information that lived on it, the council recognized the importance of a multi-pronged approach. They utilized social media, as well as their local newspaper, to spread the word and drive visitors to the platform.
Once they had a good amount of registrants and engagement on the site, the next step was to plan how to keep the community connected even when there wasn’t an active project on their site. They found that following up on previous projects that residents had previously engaged with, such as progress updates on a new build, was a great way to keep people coming to the site.
“You keep the people who are already engaged happy. And word of mouth is a powerful tool, they will tell their friends and neighbors,” stated Sonia.
The word of mouth that leads to new registrants is vital as the database is built over time with community information and demographics. This data is invaluable for making planning decisions that are backed by community support, and EngagementHQ simplifies data analysis with customizable reports. EngagementHQ protects the data of all participants and community members.
Giving All Residents a Platform for Feedback
Gore District Council was pleasantly surprised that there were so many people interested in the site. They were also pleased to see the high number of registrants who provided feedback.
“The number of submissions we received digitally via the project page far exceeded the number handed in via written submissions. Which was a first for us,” stated Sonia. “Ninety percent of our submissions were received via our project page.”
“We have become very aware of the need to engage with our communities early,” Sonia explained, “We have big projects upcoming around infrastructure, wastewater/stormwater separation, and district plan review–projects that will shape the nature of our towns and districts for many years to come. We want to make sure we give all our residents the opportunity to have input on all those processes.”
Gore District Council offers advice for local government agencies considering digital community engagement software. They stress that having a marketing communications plan is very helpful for the rollout and promotion, as is the need to be patient as it grows. While the engagement may be slow at first, it will ramp up as more community members see it as a hub of accurate information and a safe place for feedback.
Sonia advises organizations not to hesitate to move forward with online community engagement.
“Don’t delay. Don’t think your community is not ready for it [digital-first community engagement], because they are. Don’t sell your older community short because they will be ready for it as well.”
Want to learn more about the power of digital-first community engagement? Reach out to us.