A Virtual Fireside Chat about Digital-Engagement

Some weeks ago I was interviewed by Mackenzie Boli as part of a series of interviews she has been conducting with business and community leaders about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. I highly recommend you look in on this series, available through Mackenzie’s Linkedin page

We discussed a range of topics and have highlighted different segments of that conversation here to keep the conversation going among our community of practitioners. 

Digital-First Engagement

First up, some thoughts on Digital-First Engagement. This is my take on explaining the concept and how the pandemic gives us an opportunity to explore digital-first engagement, which is really something we ought to have been doing all along anyway.

As you can see, I am optimistic that the pandemic will lead us down a positive path, to a place where much broader participation is the norm. I hope and believe this will be one of the lasting impacts from this period of change and will leave a very positive legacy.

You can learn more about Digital First Engagement here in our free guide.

Next, let’s expand on the issue of why face to face engagement is limited. Simply due to the number of people who cannot attend. Often people counter this sort of argument with asking about digital exclusion. It’s true that neither method is perfect, that’s why it’s always best to do both. Digital engagement can and regularly does reach thousands of people, whereas face to face never does. This means that not having a digital component to your engagement process is highly exclusionary.

I hope you spotted the acknowledgement that face to face engagement offers a deeper dive and makes it easier to forge personal connections. I will never advocate against face to face engagement, I just cannot understand why or how anyone can justify running a process that does not offer a digital engagement component.

This next clip is about the all important ‘inform’ part of the IAP2 Spectrum. Inform is an often maligned and shunned part of our engagement work. You don’t see many awards given out for informing, but every project goes through a phase where it needs to inform. The pandemic has shown us the need to get good quality information out to people in a timely manner like never before.  

Note here that I am talking about using a Q&A tool. Informing doesn’t have to be a one way flow of information. It can still be a conversation and can still be interactive. When this happens, there is a better chance of drawing the community’s attention away from some of the myth sharing on social media.  

Then we got to chatting about perceptions of risk and organizations getting started with engagement.

We work with 580 government organizations around the world right now, so over the years I have become accustomed to the anxieties of those organizations as they start out on the path to online engagement. The good news is that they rarely, if ever, turn back. Online engagement brings efficiency, awareness, robust decision making and builds community. Why would anyone ever turn back from that?

Compare that with the old way of engaging in the USA – the open mic. I pretty much guarantee that whoever came up with the concept of the open mic form of engagement wasn’t motivated by a desire to make the community feel loved and listened to. They most likely hadn’t been IAP2 trained either.

That some cities still do this and that community members tolerate it confounds me.  This is an era where efficiency is going to be paramount in government. Budgets are under pressure like we have rarely seen before. Efficiency isn’t just about dollars. It also has a time component and an effectiveness component. As cities strive for efficiency as we exit this crisis, I hope a spotlight will be shone on archaic and ineffective engagement practices and be consigned to the trash can of history where they belong.

The Time to Engage is Now

Finally, let’s expand on the clip Mackenzie used in her blog, I’m glad she chose this. The time to engage is now. So many government organizations are struggling with how to engage their community during the pandemic. There’s only so much to say about the actual pandemic but life is still continuing and we are available and willing to talk like never before. This has to be an opportunity.

Speaking for myself, I’ve really got to know my community and neighborhood like never before in recent weeks. I am more interested, more observant, and more engaged in all things local. I know I am not alone. Suddenly instead of living here, in between trips elsewhere, I am present.  This means I am more willing to get involved than ever before and I am betting I am not alone. This is one of those times we need to seize the moment and get our community together thinking about recovery, what comes next, making our places better, making our lives better, and what contribution we can all make. There is no risk in providing an online space to engage on a whole range of issues. There is no cost associated with the community choosing not to be involved but I am betting that if you give them a chance, they will be interested.

I have to wrap up with a point that I would have made if the video was shot today. There has been an understandable but frustrating tendency for cities to go looking for replacements for live events. In doing this, they go for the closest thing they can think of – a live-streamed meeting.  Bad idea.  As we move past face to face events, the next best thing is most certainly not the closest thing to what we had before. If people don’t have to be in the room, why do they have to conform to rigid timing? Why force people to be there live when we can offer the chance to digest information and contribute to an issue on a much more friendly time scale. Why not give them a week, or two, or more to contribute? That is how we will change public participation to reach more people, to be more convenient, and that is how we end up with better, more efficient and more effective public policy.

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