The next generation of community engagement: blending high-tech and high-touch public involvement

We need to rethink our entire approach to public engagement.

The 1st generation of public engagement, version 1.0, was dominated by traditional public meetings. Rent the hall, buy the muffins and see who shows up. The issue with these is that you just end up getting the same ten people showing up to your events. The vocal minority dominates the dialogue.

With the advent of online engagement tools we’ve entered the 2nd generation, version 2.0, where a group of high-tech companies have tried to recreate traditional public meetings digitally. Some people in the industry seem to think that we can completely replace public meetings with these digital tactics. Despite the fact that my company creates online engagement software, I completely disagree. We need to stop fooling ourselves that we can just have online versions of workshops. We are ready for version 3.0.

I believe that both methods, traditional and digital, have their place – each with unique strengths that make them well suited to different parts of the overall engagement process. I also think a lot of people in our industry aren’t taking advantage of the benefits that could be achieved by integrating the two, and so today I propose a new framework for public engagement. I call it ‘Public Engagement 3.0’, a strategy for blending high-touch and high-tech methods.

High-touch

High-touch methods are those that require the physical presence of participants and organizers. High-touch techniques for community engagement are low-tech and include face-to-face meetings, public workshops and various community events. As with any method, there are both benefits and drawbacks to these tactics.

At a public meeting you can sit down for hours with concerned citizens and have two-way dialogue, getting to know them and their issues and rolling up your sleeves to create solutions that address their concerns.

The problem with public meetings is that there is a very high barrier to entry and only the most motivated (and usually angry) segment of the community will show up. If these attendees set the priorities for the project moving forward, you’re not really creating solutions based on the priorities of the entire community, just the small subset that was motivated enough to come out and have their voice heard at a public event. They can also be time-consuming and costly to run.

High-tech

High-tech is on the other side of spectrum and is very low-touch. It involves zero or very little personal interaction with the community, and uses digital tools to reach out to the community and perform similar function to what would be accomplished at a public meeting.

As discussed, traditional engagement methods like public meetings have high barriers to entry. Online engagement can have a very low barrier to participation, especially if your online engagement process is fast and easy. The result is that you can easily engage more people of a broader demographic of your community. Using digital tools also lower costs and requires less staff time and logistics.

The drawback of online community engagement tools is that it’s less personal and you generally have a shorter amount of time to interact with someone – for our surveys, the typical person spends about 5-10 minutes contributing their ideas. This short time commitment is great for ensuring that you hear from a large number of people (as time is a major barrier to entry), but it doesn’t allow for very deep conversations with people. With only a few minutes, there’s a limit on how much information you can gather.

There are benefits and drawbacks for both traditional and online methods, and in our opinion both are suited to different stages of the overall engagement process.

How to effectively blend the strengths of both

The key to my proposed framework is a marriage of the two – using online engagement tools to collect input from a wide audience, and then using that input to guide more constructive public meetings, working with interested community members to come up with solutions, and finally taking those solutions back out online for broad community input.

Picture a bow tie representing the overall engagement process, with the first wide end representing broad engagement using high-tech tools, followed by the narrow middle section representing high-touch methods with a smaller audience of community members, and then finally going back to the broader public using digital tools.

Bowtie Analogy - MetroQuest

Step 1. High-tech (Engaging thousands and gaining insight)

This is the initial phase, where you’ll want to get the broadest input possible in order to set the tone for the project and find out what the most important priorities are for the majority of the community. Using online engagement tools designed to be easy and fast for participants you’ll reach a much larger group of people than you ever could, even with a series of public workshops.

By engaging a larger audience, you’ll also have an opportunity to entice more people to attend your traditional public workshops, and those who do attend will also be much more informed about the issues after having been educated about the scope of the project online beforehand.

Step 2. Low-tech (Turning data into possible solutions and alternatives)

Now that you have all this data from a large and broad demographic of your community, workshops and public meetings will be much more effective and you can work with attendees to craft solutions based on this data.

I think it’s still beneficial to have a listening session with these motivated community members, but the idea is to complement these sessions with the data in hand and not let the small minority of workshop attendees set the priorities for the entire community.

A skilled facilitator can empower the attendees to be ambassadors of the broader community voice, and turn the workshop into a solution-creation exercise. By harnessing the time and energy of the participants to roll up their sleeves and create solutions the results can be creative and constructive. This process typically takes a few hours and is the kind of input that can only be gathered face to face. Furthermore, having stakeholders co-create the alternatives can generate significant public support and buy-in.

Step 3. High-tech (Assessment of alternatives, building community support)

After your public meetings, go back to high-tech tools again to evaluate these new strategies and alternatives. You’ll now be engaging your broader community with solutions that were guided by their priorities and developed in collaboration with their peers.

When presenting alternatives of scenarios, it’s important to allow participants to understand the trade-offs associated with each option. For example, in MetroQuest we allow participants to rank their priorities and then see how each scenario or alternative performs on their top priorities before voting. This kind of educational process can generate a great deal of informed input from the community.

Finally, you can then use this data to create a plan that will have the support of the majority of the community, due to the fact that they were involved in the process every step of the way.

In my opinion, these are the minimum steps required to ensure a successful engagement process. If your budget and timeframe allow it, you may choose to add additional rounds of public input, iterating back and forth between high-tech and high-touch engagement.

Conclusion

The idea of Public Engagement 3.0 is to leverage the best of both worlds. Digital engagement is well-suited to collecting opinions and educating the public at large in a short timeframe, whereas traditional public meetings can be a great forum for looking at data and working with a smaller group of motivated citizens to create solutions. By combining online engagement tools with effective public meetings, you can achieve amazing results.

Use online engagement to gather informed input that better represents the majority of the people in your community, and then use that data to leverage the highly motivated locals who show up to community workshops – creating high-impact plans with their input and assistance, based on the data of the masses.