The Digital First Engagement Methodology
Building on from our 21st-Century Practitioners Guide to Community Engagement, Nathan Connors unpacks a digital-first engagement methodology and how to utilise EngagementHQ tools to create purposeful, well-planned engagement that ensures great outcomes for community.
Having a well-planned and strategic approach to digital engagement is the best way to ensure a rigorous engagement process that supports informed decision-making and strengthens relationships with stakeholders.
By using Bang the Table’s Digital-First Engagement Methodology, you can better plan for a phased approach to your next online consultation and fast-track your ability to achieve best-practice engagement results. In this article, we look at how to apply this methodology in order to help you plan and execute your next digital engagement project.
What is a digital-first engagement methodology?
The simplest way to characterise a digital-first engagement methodology is as the process which guides the execution of your online consultation. A digital-first engagement methodology is essentially a roadmap which outlines the key project phases and objectives of your online consultation, the digital tools which you will use and the key engagement questions that you’ll ask along the way.
A good digital-first engagement methodology will almost always be informed by an engagement plan which outlines key objectives and outcomes and details the limitations, negotiables, associated risks and communications plan for engaging stakeholders. While there are many different methodologies to suit different types of project objectives, those which can be considered best practice should always seek to implement a phased approach to engaging stakeholders in order to elevate them beyond mere transactional engagement activities.
It’s also important to note that the methodology presented here is most suited to a decision-making process, which seeks to collaborate and refine a solution by allowing stakeholders to help define appropriate solutions.
Understanding the methodology
The graphic above details Bang the Table’s Digital First Engagement Methodology which is made up of five interacting components:
- Project Phase – Outlines the stage or lifecycle of your project. Each phase will have a defined duration and a certain set of activities. These phases guide the overall strategies which will be deployed. It is not uncommon for each project phase to go on for weeks, months or even years depending on the complexity of the consultation.
- Engagement Objective – Each phase will have a unique engagement object that needs to be addressed. This objective guides how and who you will interact with, what should be asked of stakeholders and the mechanisms for capturing their input. Importantly, each phase of this methodology has its own objective, which is different to the established overall objectives of the consultation as outlined in your project plan.
- Stakeholder Assessment – This outlines the number of voices which needs to be heard at each phase of the consultation.
- Digital Tool Selection – Each phase is best suited to different digital engagement tool for capturing feedback. The EngagementHQ Tool Spectrum has a range of tools to help execute a digital-first engagement methodology. These are broken down into Open, Mixed and Closed environment tools.
- Key Engagement Questions – Asking the right types of questions at the right time is essential for good engagement outcomes. The key engagement questions for each phase will be guided by the objective of that phase and ensure that relevant questions are being put to your stakeholders.
In the next section we look at how these components work together in each of the six key project phases; Project Initiation, Options Identification, Solutions Refinement, Solutions Testing, Project Decision Making and Project Implementation.
Phase 1: Project Initiation
Engagement Objective: Empathise and Research
During the project initiation phase, the objective is to better understanding the issues, opportunities and lived experiences of stakeholders. This is done through broad engagement with stakeholders and experts and usually focusses on gathering hard evidence and data as well as emotive inputs to help identify themes or discussion points to focus the consultation.
Allowing time for this critical step will helps to establish a stakeholder journey, ensuring stakeholders are involved early at a time when they can still influence the course of the conversation and provide their experiences. The project initiation phase is essentially where you collect your corpus of information and learn about the impact of the issue or opportunity on your stakeholders.
Stakeholder Assessment: The Top of the Funnel
The project initiation phase is about capturing feedback from as many voices as possible. This top-of-funnel broad engagement activity, ensures a diverse representation of your stakeholder group can influence and shape your future discussions and are able to get involved at a time before the project complexity narrows in towards a decision point. Without executing this broad capture of voices, you can risk derailing your decision-making at later points by haphazardly discovering you have incorrectly scoped your project and you have missed a critical component that otherwise would have been discovered.
Digital Tool Selection: Use One or Many
Tools most suited to this phase of consultation include those which operate towards the open end of our Engagement Tools Spectrum. These include; Forums to encourage dialogue; Stories to empathise with lived experience; Ideas to foster creativity and garner options; Q&A to help stakeholders further investigate context and ask questions as well as Places to help target stories to geographic locations.
Key Engagement Questions: Open, Contemplation
Framing questions for the early phases of a digital-first engagement can often be difficult, with many practitioners failing to execute this phase well. Practitioners will sometimes completely skip this critical first step and dive straight into surveying their stakeholders in an attempt to expedite their consultation process.
This, however, rarely delivers good results.
Because the project initiation phase is focussed on research and empathy, it’s often useful to frame key engagement questions in ways which demand contemplation and are delivered in an open fashion, allowing participants to respond creatively and in their own voice to the issues before them.
Below are some examples of phrasing for key engagement questions in this phase;
Open Question – “What is the impact of ever-increasing house prices and wage growth stagnation on your family?”; “What do you feel most proud of about your suburb? What do you show visitors to the area?”
Demand Contemplation – “Given the large scale and location close to transport hubs, what opportunities do you think the return of this parkland provides for the health of the broader community beyond the immediate neighbourhood?”
Phase 2: Options Identification
Engagement Objective: Ideate
During the options identification phase, the objective is to use the learnings you have from the research and empathy phase to crowdsource ideas for a potential solution to your project. Generally speaking, this will entail you proposing a question/s to your stakeholder with the intention of collecting as many potential solutions and ideas as possible.
This practice is generally associated with consultations that are perceived to be co-designed or collaborative, however, they need not be seen through this prism and instead should be treated as part of any good decision-making methodology. Ideation activities can be run with reference groups, deliberative online panels, key technical stakeholders, planners or any other stakeholder group.
Stakeholder Assessment: Bring People on the Journey
During the options identification phase you want to ensure you include those who have already empathised with you in the previous phase come on the journey with you. You also want to ensure you are seeking new voices to be involved in your project as a way of building a larger set of options and considerations for your project.
If you have effectively closed the loop after your initial project phase and made an attempt to digest the lived experiences and research you should be able to effectively frame your options identification questions and activity with ease.
Digital Tool Selection: It’s All About the Question
Almost all digital engagement tools can be used during this phase of a digital-first methodology but key consideration needs to be given to the framing of the question and the completeness of the activity your want to facilitate. As a general rule, think beyond the digital tool itself and instead think about the ideation activity you want to run and how you will execute it.
Will you require people to vote on ideas? Do you want them to comment on other peoples ideas? Can people submit more than one idea? Do you want it to run on social media or via SMS? Do you want the ideas visible to other attendees? The list goes on.
With this in mind, choosing dedicated ideation tools such as EHQ Places and Ideas is a good way to ensure you have a range of features and customisations to support your activity.
Key Engagement Questions: Positivity, Context, Honesty
Framing questions for the options identification phase of your consultation is critical. Choose questions which are honest and open as well as those which promote positivity.
Below are some examples of phrasing for key engagement questions in this phase;
Promotes Positivity – “What are your ideas to help make Futureville park the most accessible park in United States?”; “How might we solve the accessibility issues in the park?”
Provides Context – “Given the area is recognised internationally by several heritage protection treaties, what is the best way that the old building site can be reused for the benefit of the broadest possible community?”
Be Honest – “What should we do to conserve the heritage value of the area when the old theatre is demolished?”
Phase 3: Solutions Refinement
Engagement Objective: Critical Assessment
During the Solutions Refinement Phase, the objective shifts from capturing and identify themes and ideas, towards a process of refining and assessing potential solutions. Sometimes this phase is presented directly after the project initiation phase, which generally happens when the scope for stakeholder ideation is limited due to the technical limitations or feasibility of potential options.
The main objective here, however, is to determine the feasibility and support for options and to obtain more context and information in order to refine the selection.
Stakeholder Assessment: Continue to Refine
During this phase, fewer voices are required than in the project initiation and options identification phase of the consultation. While it’s important to begin testing options and themes with a broad section of your stakeholder group, this phase asks that you be slightly more targeted with stakeholder groups to ensure the most relevant stakeholders are being identified for input to help refine options.
Key Engagement Questions: Scenarios, Targeted, Specific, Dig-Deeper
As some themes or options have already been identified in previous phases, key questions during this phase should focus on presenting scenarios, being targeted as well as digging a little deeper.
Below are some examples of key engagement questions for the Solutions Refinement Phase;
Presenting Scenarios – “Which of these scenarios is more threatening and why? We re-zone the area adjacent to the park as an industrial zone, or we utilise it as a mixed use zone for business and residential purposes?”
Being Targeted – “As an outer-suburbs commuter, how will the proposed ideas affect you?”
Being Specific – “How would a proposed change to the operating hours of the daycare centre affect you?”
Digging Deeper – “What is it about your preferred solution that makes it the best option from your perspective?”
Digital Tool Selection:
During this phase, tools which encourage commenting and dialogue as well as qualitative responses are best suited. These include Forum discussions, Ideas tool with commenting and voting functionality turned on and the Q&A tool for ongoing stakeholder queries.
If you decide to utilise forums as a digital tool to help you execute this phase, ensure to set up a process which supports facilitation of digital dialogue. You can read more about digital deliberation in our guide book.
Phase 4: Solutions Testing
Engagement Objective: Quantitative Analysis
The solutions testing phase is dedicated to taking the refined options and putting them to the test of implementation. Often this is done by putting in place a draft implementation plan for stakeholders to review. This phase includes testing for final support and feasibility, assessing the impact of the potential solution, providing modelling and demonstrating how the refined option/s will address the issue at hand.
Solutions testing is focussed on proving support for the final option and it where practitioners will learn if their methodology and approach has delivered results. By this point the key stakeholder groups should be fairly comfortable with the solution as well as its compromises and adjustments.
Stakeholder Assessment: The Pointy End
At this stage of the consultation, we assume the voices who have provided input will either have come on a journey with us or some will have dropped off, feeling like they have already provided their input. While some will still be engaged in the final endorsement of options, at this stage there is generally less scope to take new ideas or options, hence less voices will be required.
At this point, it will be more important to have technical and key stakeholders to review the potential solution for practicality and to test the draft implementation plan and its assumptions.
Digital Tool Selection: Keep it Simple
At this point in the consultation, tool selection begins to allow for more qualitative and closed mechanisms such as surveys and polls. In order to quantify the support for options, as well as unpack additional information, a well-designed survey may well be the best mechanism to capture this feedback.
Another option for tool selection at this stage might be to utilise an interactive PDF engagement tool such as Konveio to capture feedback insitu right on the draft implementation plan itself. There may also be some scope to conduct a submissions process at this point if that is a desired option for the consulting organisation.
Key Engagement Questions:
At this phase, the key questions should focus on testing the solution using a range of lines of inquiry. If you are using a survey or submissions process, you would also seek to frame questions in quantifiable ways to ensure you can measure support and feedback.
Below are some examples of key engagement questions for this phase;
Be Spatial – “On a scale of 1-5 to what extent will our plan to develop townhouses over the Futureville railway station affect you?”
Be Provocative – “How would you feel about replacing all of the city’s trams with bus services?”
Present Options – “What are you thoughts about the refined park accessibility options?”
Be Honest – “Tell us what you think about our preferred solution and whether you think it’s a viable option from your perspective?”
Phase 5: Decision-Making
Engagement Objective: Formal Assessment
During the decision-making phase, all of the inputs and consultation feedback are considered and a final decision about the project is taken. This is often done as an internal process and requires limited feedback from stakeholders.
At this point, it’s essential to close the loop with all stakeholders by showcasing the decision-making process and outcomes in a consultation report. It’s also a great time to deliver an evaluation of your process with stakeholders.
In order to support decision-making and closing-the-loop with stakeholders, interactive project dashboards that allow stakeholders to evaluate your decision making process are a powerful way to support your decision-making.
Stakeholder Assessment: Internal Decision-making
As mentioned above, typically this phase is completed internally, where all final submissions and feedback are taken on-board and assessed against the draft implementation plan. Typically, only key stakeholders, technical personnel and executive decision-makers are required for this phase.
Digital Tool Selection: Forums and Surveys
Digital tools which can assist at this stage are typically surveys, in order to conduct your evaluation processes and potentially forums to allow your key stakeholders to discuss options in closed digital project environments.
Key Engagement Questions: Be Clear, Be Specific
Be Clear – “Discuss areas in which the draft project plan doesn’t address the key issues outlined in the submissions process?”
Be Specific – “Based on feedback and other requirements we have decided to implement new infrastructure for housing above the railway station. How will this effect traffic flows for residents in the area?”
Phase 6: Project Implementation
Engagement Objective: Information dissemination, Issues Management, Community Feedback
The objective for digital engagement during this phase is to support the roll out or implementation of the project. Since all of the stakeholder engagement has been completed, the focus here shifts on issues management and information dissemination in order to achieve a smooth project delivery.
This phase is about minimising impacts during implementation, avoiding negative media and publicity and also ensuring the broader public or stakeholder community are aware of the project going ahead. Best practice during this phase is to ensure that all engagement activities that occurred in the lead-up to implementation are visible and used as a tool to support a smooth roll-out.
Stakeholder Assessment: Public Interest Grows
Generally speaking, once a project begins its implementation a new and broader audience becomes aware of the project. This requires practitioners to shift their engagement objectives to support relationship building and information dissemination.
Often this is where publicity campaigns and well though-out communications strategies will come into play to ensure that a growing interested audience has all the fact and information related to the implementation of the project.
Digital Tool Selection: Places, Forums, Surveys
Digital tool selection during this phase should focus on tools which will enable community dialogue, issues identification as well as satisfaction surveying. This might include places for assistance pointing out issues, forums for community discussion about the implementation as well as surveys for regular impact and satisfaction testing with effected or disrupted communities.
Other interesting techniques such as knowledge check quizzes and other interactive relationship building activities are a great way to support project delivery and communications.
Key Engagement Questions: Motivate Involvement, Be Open
During implementation questions shift focus to support project delivery.
Below are some examples of key engagement questions for this phase;
Motivate Involvement – “What strategies have you implemented at home to reduce the impact of longer commute times due to the construction of the new metro?”
Be Open – “How will you utilise the new transport facilities into your daily commute once construction is finished?”
In summary, utilising digital-first engagement methodology is a great way to think about executing a staged approach to engagement for decision-making and project implementation. Utilising a range of digital tools and framing questions appropriately for each project phase allows engagement professionals to bring their stakeholders and community on a journey and includes them in the refinement of decision-making.
Combining this simple methodology with the power of open data, good closing the loop practices and project evaluation ensures that digital-first engagement is purposeful, well planned and supported with data that ensures great outcomes for community.
If you’d like assistance working through project planning, developing ideation activities, surveys or interactive dashboards, Bang the Table offers a range of EngagementIQ packages to support project teams. Talk to your Engagement Manager or contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.