Online Engagement–Always? After? First? When?

We are looking forward to a lively discussion at the International Association of Public Participation’s (IAP2) USA conference this year.  We will explore decision making processes for when to go online and when to go in-person, or both, as far as community engagement is concerned.  We will discuss the difference if we were to approach design from a “digital first” perspective. 

Here is a sneak-peek of what’s to come…


Here, we encourage engagement process designers to rate the type of engagement according to the complexity of a particular project or topic and also political sensitivity.  If the item you are engaging about falls into the red or orange boxes, based on your own subjective assessment (and collectively that of your closest friends, family, committee members, task force individuals, private interest groups, etc.) then you are probably looking at a candidate for “online only” engagement.  If you are in the yellow, get your pop up tent ready and start to build those big information boards for your next open house. Clearly, this is more art than science but can create a great discussion guide for teams faced with these decisions; particularly when community expectations and organizational resources are not aligned. 

What if? 

We intend to create a bit of a stir at the IAP2 USA conference by posing the question of how community engagement practitioners would do things differently if they started with online engagement concepts and designed practice solely for that space rather than face to face events.  Have we lost our minds and are we totally discounting the value of face to face interactions for building relationships, decision-making and issue management? No, of course not. But–we think there is a lot to be gained from this sort of thinking. So, what would change?

1. Content design would improve.  

We have to think about information at a glance.  Infographics are great to portray complicated information in a manner easy to consume.  Videos should have a two-minute automatic shut-off because audience numbers not only fall off at that point but many will never click something that demands more than that; remember videos typically display the running time so your audience chooses before the click.  Content should be created to get to the point–the question at hand–right away. Rather than wading through varying types of information to get to the engagement, tools would infiltrate the noise and provide opportunities for interaction right away. Actual engagement.  Small snippets of rich media would carry a few prevailing themes and the public would be asked to comment throughout. What if the public could “speak” when moved rather than when dictated by process and procedure?

Longmont, Colorado has created an informing and engaging space with multiple projects by thinking digitally first.  Note their use of rich media, infographics to describe the role of the public in the process and 

2. Less surveys and more interactive tools would be utilized.

It’s time for us to re-imagine the survey.  Our current concept of a survey was formed from in-person events and now feels archaic in the online space.  The majority of surveys are still designed as a one shot, transactional interaction with a vertical alignment, utilized to ask questions and gather feedback from one individual at a time.  Often, we ask lots of questions and only use data gathered from a few of them.. In the online space, this exchange can become a horizontal experience for participants–an iterative interaction dispersed with short, dense rich media to bring us along a continuum of learning while asking 1-3 questions around; gathering public input and utilizing it in real time to keep building the continuum in a more effective manner and to move the community engagement processes of multi-phased projects along more readily and comprehensively.

We need to use a combination of tools for strategic reasons.  Individuals are unique and have natural affinities for different types of interactions.  It is easy to provide a mix of opportunities online and they can be chosen strategically with varying targets in mind–age, gender, ethnicity, skill sets, literacy levels, language preferences, and many more.  Online engagement offers you the ability to use multiple tools for the same project, and maybe even the same question, allowing you to reach different types of people.

Broomfield, Colorado uses rich media to tee up a public forum in an effective way.  They also utilize an online timeline to welcome newcomers and allow them to choose how they get up to speed on a long-term project. 

3. Interactions would become less transactional and more iterative.

We have to be relationship-focused.  Thinking of the online space as a project to project information collection device is sterile and self-serving.  Online engagement should be about creating a relationship and a reliable, trustworthy space for exchange. If we reimagine and build content designed to create relationships in an ongoing dialogue, we will start to share stories and personal interactions.  Pictures. Videos. Ideas and creativity. We won’t bake options and put them out for final selection but we will build better options together, from the start. The online space can be an incubator for co-design if we set it up for that purpose. We have learned from social media that digital interactions are very real to individuals and that people become connected through them.  If local governments spend time creatively building a space online that builds community capacity and foster forward-thinking, positive action then there is immeasurable opportunity.  

Tigard, Oregon is getting great feedback about their downtown plaza concept plan but far more than that, the community is learning and growing together, in a space designed for relationship-building. 

Have ideas about a digital first community engagement strategy that you would like to discuss?  Amanda Nagl,, is all ears.  Be careful though, anything you share can and will be used to help others improve their practice!

Join the session Online Engagement – Always? First? After? When? at IAP2 USA Conference on Friday, September 6 at 1 pm.

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