Connecting state and local government leaders
COMMENTARY | The pandemic quickly shifted most community engagement to virtual arrangements, but not all citizens have ready access to online forums. Public officials can address inequities by finding alternative ways to gather valuable community input.
The pandemic may have quieted car traffic, but it hasn’t muffled people’s voices. With public gatherings and in-person meetings off the table, community members everywhere have found new ways to engage in public matters.
When they couldn’t gather at town halls or in recreational facilities, community members jumped online through Zoom, Google Meet and Facebook Live for discussion, debate and Q&A sessions. In fact, technology increased many people’s opportunities to become involved, particularly those who normally struggled to attend in-person meetings or events.
This new online means of giving and gathering input offers advantages for public planners, too. Not having to rent space or buy refreshments helps planners save money. There’s less guesswork around picking the best location or date and time, while crossing your fingers about the weather. Also, gathering information online allows for input to be received anytime and for longer than just during the in-person meeting window.
Of course, along with its advantages, the virtual shift has come with its own challenges. It has highlighted economic disparities and emphasized the digital divide among community members. Not everyone has access to digital devices or a WiFi connection, which leaves some voices unrepresented. Even people who do have access have other priorities, like work or school, that monopolize devices and bandwidth.
If we can adequately address these challenges, we might very well look back on Covid-19 as an unexpected catalyst for innovating community engagement.
Building multiple points of community engagement
Public project organizers are learning, through a mixture of novel approaches and collaborations, how to build trust with the people and families they serve. If you’re revamping your organization’s or agency’s approach to connecting with stakeholders, consider the following multifaceted methods to extend accessibility and gather valuable community input:
1. Meet people where they are.
Use various tactics to get the word out about any opportunities for community members to share feedback. For example, even if the ultimate goal is to get community members to fill out an online survey, you can reach more residents with yard signs and social media posts promoting the survey.
Even in the age of Covid-19, you still have options to reach people without online access. In the St. Louis region in Missouri, we hold pop-up “office hours” in neighborhoods, setting up multiple tents and tables so people can offer feedback orally or in writing. Both staff and participants are masked and asked to observe social distancing guidelines.
You can also offer downloadable or printable formats of digital surveys that people can print or mail in. Under normal circumstances, we would hand out paper surveys at public events and meetings for people to fill out on-site or mail in later. Today, we have fewer in-person opportunities and know that not everyone can or wants to fill out a survey online. Instead, we mail paper copies of surveys on request, and include download links in emails so people have the option to print and return surveys at their convenience.
Another tactic to expand your reach is to offer email or text subscriptions for updates. We use these channels to offer updates for all of our greenway projects, so when an opportunity arises for input, interested community members are quickly in the loop.
2. Experiment with various methods and channels.
Whatever strategies you decide to implement, make sure you use a variety of them. You want to offer plenty of engagement options so that people who may not have access to one avenue have other ways to share input.
The metro government in Portland, Oregon offers a great example of offering community members multiple ways to give feedback. Their methods include calls (with available options for telecommunications devices for the deaf), emailing, filling out online or paper forms, mail-ins and one-on-one Zoom sessions with staff members.
3. Keep instructions clear and engagement easy.
Every method you use to communicate engagement opportunities should be clear and direct. Whether it’s a yard sign, text message or social media post informing constituents of upcoming calls for feedback, you want all the information to be front and center, including the where, when and how.
Recording online sessions can be another excellent way to help increase the ease of accessibility. For anyone who can’t join a virtual meeting, share the recording of the meeting so people can watch it on their own time and at their own pace. Then, provide a means for viewers to submit comments online or by mail-in response to the session to inform your project and processes.
4. Follow up after engagement.
After you’ve collected input, implement follow-up strategies to make sure the public knows you’ve heard their feedback. For example, you can share meeting outcomes, key takeaways and next steps on your website and social media.
One example of an excellent follow-up strategy is Trinity Park Conservancy in Dallas. This group shares in-depth recaps of its listening sessions to showcase what it’s heard and how it will use that information in the future. This helps to encourage future involvement because stakeholders realize their words and ideas matter.
Change can be an impetus for growth when you recognize challenges and innovate to overcome them. Communities should use this critical moment to evaluate and update communication practices to ensure they are receiving quality feedback from a wide variety of people and serving the needs of all community members.