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Virtual Community Engagement

Virtual Community Engagement

With in-person meetings on hold due to the global pandemic, many communities are beginning to experiment with different technologies to connect with their constituents virtually. To assist Dane County communities in the search for effective digital communication methods, CARPC staff have compiled the following overview of available tools, best practices, and informational resources.

Online communications present both challenges and opportunities. On the one hand, it’s important to be sensitive to the fact that not everyone has the time, energy, or technical resources to successfully participate right now. On the other, virtual engagement tools may increase accessibility for some people while fostering collaboration and transparency in a time of crisis. The lessons learned during this time may ultimately help local governments create an expanded civic engagement toolset than can be used even once in-person gatherings are reinstated.

Whether your community is holding regular meetings or soliciting public feedback on a specific project, carefully considering basic accessibility and safety is a great place to start. Establishing and maintaining good cybersecurity practices is an essential first step. The Wisconsin Office of Open Government’s March 20th Advisory further urges governments to provide adequate notice, reasonable accommodations, and dial-in options to make sure meetings remain open and accessible to the public. Making recordings and minutes or transcripts available to the public is also considered a best practice.

Beyond the logistical aspects, it’s important to establish a clear purpose and audience for each engagement opportunity. This will also help you select the appropriate tool(s) for sharing information and collecting feedback. Online conversations don’t always proceed as smoothly as in-person interactions, so it’s even more important to think of ways to foster successful communication. Identify and address the barriers to access or entry that might exist for people interested in participating. What unique difficulties might exist for rural populations, people of color, older adults, or people with lower income or education levels?

Virtual Engagement Platforms

When it comes to selecting a specific engagement platform, there is no shortage of options for any type of virtual communication. IAP2 has compiled a comprehensive list of tools and best practices to guide public participation efforts during COVID-19.

Familiar channels

Many communities already have a well-established digital presence and have been sharing information and inviting feedback through their email newsletters and listservs, social media accounts, websites, press releases, and text messaging systems. Familiar platforms can be easily adapted to meet new communications needs, and indeed many of the platforms themselves are taking the lead in these adaptations. Facebook’s Live feature has been particularly helpful in streaming announcements, events, and meetings. Nextdoor.com, whose user activity has doubled since the pandemic reached the United States, has been recognized for useful new features such as Help Maps and Groups.

Video conferencing software

Over the last few months, many of us have quickly become acquainted with video conferencing as a way to stay in touch while staying at home. During video conference meetings, the public has the ability to view or call in; recordings and/or transcriptions can then be published afterward for those unable to tune in live.

Subscription-based services such as GoToMeeting, Webex, and Zoom are all relatively easy to use tools for conducting staff meetings, public meetings, webinars and other forms of engagement online. A detailed comparison of these three services, including applications, features, and pricing, is available on the American Planning Association’s blog. CARPC has been using Microsoft Teams for internal staff communications and holding public Commission meetings via Zoom. MeetingSphere is another, lesser-known platform that allows for collaborative meetings of 20 or more people, including the ability to hold simultaneous small group meetings.

Virtual engagement platforms for local government

Over the last several years, a growing number of virtual engagement platforms specifically targeted to local governments and planning agencies have emerged. These platforms offer a wide range of dynamic features that can be tailored to suit the needs of individual communities and projects.

Two of the more widely known options are Bang the Table, with its EngagementHQ software featuring spatial surveys, an e-petition portal, and individual project engagement sites, and the Konveio civic engagement software, which allows users to collaborate on shared documents. Additional platforms of note include:

  • MetroQuest – an online public engagement platform for urban and transportation planning
  • Thoughtexchange – a crowdsourcing platform that uses AI and machine learning to manage, rate, and identify themes from large amounts of feedback submitted by residents
  • Balancing Act – an online budget simulation that allows community members and other stakeholders to weigh in on budgeting decisions; also allows communities to provide taxpayer receipts showing individuals how their tax dollars are spent
  • Social Pinpoint – a customizable community engagement platform offering surveys, forums, mapping, and budgeting among other features
  • MindMixer – a collection of online engagement tools that solicit feedback from community members in the form of idea submissions, surveys, instant polls, photo shares, and other channels
  • Neighborland – a public engagement platform designed to give residents a say in the development of their neighborhoods

State Up has compiled a list of additional resources that governments could incorporate into their COVID-19 response; most of these options are also applicable to general planning and outreach endeavors.

Creative approaches

Communities don’t necessarily need to purchase special software or subscriptions to conduct comprehensive online engagement, however. For those able to get creative and put in the time, it’s possible to combine multiple readily available tools to create a robust public outreach experience.

For example, the city of Missoula, Montana recently launched a Virtual Charrette Hub to replace a series of in-person charrettes that were canceled due to COVID-19. Using Squarespace (a website builder), PowerPoint, and YouTube, local planners and national consultants successfully hosted dozens of collaborative online meetings, virtual design studios, and a 24/7 feedback portal to collect public input on a time-sensitive area master planning project. Their effort was featured in a Smart Growth America webinar, now available to view on YouTube, which contains additional details on the project.

Next City has collected a variety of recent examples of communities combining different tools and channels in creative ways to reach their constituents. Tactics that have been successful in other American cities include:

  • Using Restream to distribute livestreams on multiple platforms
  • Addressing lack of internet access by simultaneously broadcasting via radio or coordinating volunteers to call seniors and patch them into video conference lines
  • Improving accessibility by providing closed captioning, translations in sign language, Spanish, and other languages, and distributing information to community organizations before and after events