Online Public Engagement Tools for 2020

Online Public Engagement Tools for 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to substantial change  for public engagement.  As  restrictions on gatherings and mandates for social distancing  remain in effect,  agencies  and firms nationwide are  faced with the decision to either postpone public meetings or shift their public engagement strategies online.

The good news is  that many  who have  transitioned  to online platforms have achieved better results compared to their traditional outreach strategies.  The  wide range of  online tools  available  have enabled  planners  to develop  engaging  online experiences that  broaden and diversify their reach and gather more  informed and data-driven input.   

However, online engagement  is unfamiliar territory for many. Outlined below is  a list of t he leading  online  public engagement tools and  complementary strategies  to help you choose the right solutions, maximize results and navigate this ‘new normal’ in 2020!

Considerations Around Switching to Online Public Engagement 

Before we explore the specific tools and strategies,  it is important to recognize that  solely  relying on one platform will likely not  guarantee meaningful or effective public engagement.  Online platforms each fulfil different needs and often are complimentary or used at different stages of the project lifecycle. Regulations  and requirements also  vary  from  agency  to agency.

As a result, we  strongly recommend selecting a variety of  complementary  tools  to create an online engagement toolbox that  supports your specific  projects and  goals.

Virtual Public Meetings  as an Alternatives  to Traditional Town Halls 

With barriers that prohibit in-person events,  thousands of  agencies have turned to online tools to host public meetings virtually.  This has become a very  effective solution for sharing  information  in real time  and gaining  public involvement  and feedback  during  all stages of the planning  process. 

Virtual Public Meetings as an Alternative to Traditional Town Halls  

The leading video conferencing tools include Webex, GoToMeeting and Zoom. All three solutions are designed for real-time events and are compatible on a variety of devices to help you   increase participation and diversity your  reach.  With features for  screen sharing, ‘open-mic’ discussions and  structured Q&A sessions,  you can also  closely monitor feedback and answer  participant questions  in a  very  timely manner. 

For more information on the three solutions and to  help determine which is best suited for your needs,  check out this  additional article  here.  

Community Engagement  with  Online Forums  

Online forums are an additional  online engagement tool that  can  encourage  community members to openly express  opinions  about  local  decisions  or upcoming projects.  Wix is a popular forum platform that encourage community discussions and action with features allowing members to like, comment and share posts.  Please also find attached  links to the 10 best forum softwares  and the most popular third-party  comment systems.  

Drawbacks of Online Forums for Online Public Engagement

While forums can be useful for  promoting dialogue within the community,  we recommend using this type of platform only during the early stages  of the planning process. The open-ended dialog on these platforms can provide insight into community priorities and concerns to inform planning solutions.

Similar to  platforms such as  virtual public meetings and  social media,  it is important to be  aware of the drawbacks  that accompany  the  open nature of these platforms. Open-ended comments can be useful to gauge the  public’s  opinions, but oftentimes can generate biased input as participants influence and often intimidate others. These solutions can also make it  difficult for planners to summarize comments into data-driven or quantifiable results.  

Using  Online Surveys  to Gather Informed Public Input  

To  defeat the shortcomings of solutions with open-ended comments,  planners have turned to  online  surveys to better understand community priorities and concerns and obtain  informed  and  data-driven results for all types of planning projects.   

MetroQuest is the  leading survey  tool and the only public engagement solution purposed-designed for urban and transportation  planning.  By imbedding  micro-learning moments and interactive features  into its survey design, agencies and firms have proven that with  MetroQuest  you can  increase public participation,  gain informed input  and  collect actionable results.  

88 Study MetroQuest Survey Demo

To learn more about online public engagement, visit the MetroQuest resource library and explore MetroQuest’s sample surveys here.    

Mapping and GIS Engagement Tools for an Interactive Online Experience  

As discussed in our recent webinar, virtual public involvement (VPI) tools that have  interactive mapping  components are a great way  to  help  the public visualize projects and provide spatial input on plans. Tools like MetroQuest  that include  mapping  survey options help  to  identify exactly  where community  issues  lie.

Goldsboro Urban Area 2045 MTP MetroQuest Survey Demo

Alongside  MetroQuest, additional mapping and geographic information system (GIS)  tools that are utilized for community engagement include  OpenPlans  and  Crowdmap.

Engaging Your Community with Social Media   

Social media  is commonly used by planners as an engagement tool to amplify and target project information and promote participation. It can  increase the awareness  of upcoming projects, allow planners to connect with a wide  group of  individuals and  encourage  open dialogue.  Regardless of the platform, communicating frequently, posting information on a variety of platforms and maintaining transparency will help reach a wide and diverse demographic. 

SC Multimodal Transportation Survey

Two specific forms of social media  that agencies have used for public engagement initiatives with great success are Facebook  and  Nextdoor

Facebook can be an effective platform for agencies  to regularly  provide  updates on  projects and communicate with the community by responding to comments and addressing key concerns.  We also recommend using Facebook advertising as an  inexpensive yet effective tool to promote  your  main online public engagement efforts.  Agencies like SCDOT have utilized Facebook and a customized MetroQuest survey to collect informed input from over 13,000 residents. You can  learn more  about  how you can  effectively  advertise  your  community engagement using  Facebook boosted posts  here. 

Nextdoor is a popular  platform  to connect and exchange information  with residents in specific areas and neighbourhoods.  Agencies have the option to post text-based messages, polls, events and urgent alerts. And like Facebook, you can also utilize  Nextdoor  to effectively promote additional public engagement efforts, such as an upcoming virtual public meeting or online survey.  Agencies have achieved great success using this platform.  The  City of Austin engaged  over 5,000  local residents using a combination of Nextdoor and MetroQuest.  You can check out these  6 tips  to  learn how you can  achieve similar results. 

Additional Resources  for Online Public Engagement Success

Online public engagement is an ongoing process, and the tools for it are varied and can cater to your specific strategies and goals. Check out these additional resources to  learn more about  the top online public engagement tools and see what works for your agency:  

Promising Practices for EJ Methodologies in NEPA Reviews

[GUIDE] Promising Practices for EJ Methodologies

The Promising Practices report is a compilation identified by the EJ IWG as methodologies for EJ considerations in NEPA reviews.

FHWA’s Virtual Public Involvement Spotlight

[INSIGHTS] FHWA’s Virtual Public Involvement Spotlight

The FHWA spotlights how agencies can increase meaningful public involvement by integrating virtual tools.


If you have any questions about online public engagement or MetroQuest’s online surveys, don’t hesitate to contact us

You can also watch our webinar: Essential Online Public Engagement Toolbox for Planning to  learn more about the tools and strategies planners have used to achieve online engagement success.  

Webinar: Essential Online Public Engagement Toolbox for Planners

Essential Online Public Engagement Toolbox for Planning  

Watch this webinar to learn more about the leading online tools that have helped thousands of planners  achieve their best public engagement results!


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