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 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 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.
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.
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.
A very interesting perspective and proposal. I think on the surface, Public Engagement 3.0 nobly attempts to leverage the best parts of traditional and high-tech approaches in use today. However, I think it fails to consider a significant portion of the U.S. population who are underrepresented and essentially locked out of decision-making because of limited or unequal access to both traditional and high tech engagement processes.
The model strongly implies say that “time” is a great driver in whether people participate in traditional engagement mechanisms. Granted, angry, discontented individuals are highly motivated to take the time to participate in public meetings, etc. However, there are reasons other than time that prevent or result in many individuals not participating in traditional engagement efforts.
— Consider those individuals who are unaware of such efforts because outreach occurs in ways that don’t reach segments of the population, such as: relying exclusively on e-mail to distribute information, or publishing notices in local newspapers that are distributed free to some neighborhoods but not in others, or burying such notices in rarely read sections of the local newspaper, etc.
— Consider those individuals who receive notifications about opportunities to engage literally hours or only a few days before an event that has been planned for weeks or months. Many working families require more than a day or two to make alternate arrangements for child or elder care.
— Consider those individuals who cannot participate because such engagement activities are held during normal working hours at the convenience of the convener. They are then forced to choose between working or civic engagement.
— Consider those individuals who don’t trust the process because they have been systematically and historically excluded from decision-making. These are the community residents who typically are not engaged in decision making but rather treated as recipients of decisions, as just another box to be checked off.
I agree that through online engagement tools, conveners can reach a much larger group of people than ever could through in-person gatherings. However, unless such initial outreach efforts consider and address the digital divide among rural or low-income populations, you will NOT find out what the most important priorities are for the majority of the community. Let’s not forget that high-tech approaches often tend to ignore the fact that a significant portion of the U.S. population does not have ready, reliable access to high-tech mechanisms. Consider that although 92% of Americans access the internet from home, 30% of 119 million American households do not have internet access from home. Granted many of these households have cellphones but the poor often do not use them to surf the web or freely access the internet to respond to surveys because of the cost to use cellular data. (source: U.S. Department of Commerce http://www.ntia.doc.gov/files/ntia/publications/exploring_the_digital_nation_-_americas_emerging_online_experience.pdf)
There are many more examples of why people seemingly do not engage in either the traditional or high-tech approaches. A model seemingly designed to address “time” as the primary reason why people don’t participate in “high-touch” engagement, will continue to leave out these very stakeholders. One very real issue is that too often conveners fail to realize that they must be the ones to engage the community and not the other way around. Conveners need to understand what engagement is and what it is not. True community engagement is not a one-way dialogue, nor is it conducted at the convenience of the conveners, nor is it limited to those stakeholders whose only stake in the process is the financial leverage they can offer. Community engagement is about identifying those stakeholders for whom such decisions impact how and where they live, work, and play. It also is about building collaborative partnerships with often neglected and underrepresented stakeholders. You never know — they could become a convener’s strongest champions on the ground.
Wow, thanks for taking the time to write such a long response. I agree with you that there are many other factors that could limit participation. In our experience time is the most significant factor. We write frequently on the other factors as well and stay tuned for our guidebook that will have more room to expand on these.
Several of our projects have been focused on engaging the Environmental Justice community and for these projects there are a range of strategies that have been effective in breaking down some of the barriers you have highlighted. In May we are planning on writing about those.
Yes! Yes! Yes! So long as the public meetings are well facilitated so the attendees are focused on the larger data, rather than their personal agenda.
Thought provoking article Dave. I believe this approach is pragmatic and effective, in terms of attempting to realize the best of both worlds (in person and on-line engagement). There’s no perfect scenario, but this model is these best we have right now.
Great article, Dave. It’s one thing to engage the public and reach the demographics, but to gain appropriate and actionable feedback is often a challenge with various tools on the market. Finding the right tool for the right stage of the project is important and am glad firms and agencies are taking a step in the right direction and using technology to their advantage.
Thanks for the feedback folks. I’m glad these ideas are resonating and stirring discussion. I’m happy to carry on this dialog with folks interested in the intersection between high tech and high touch public engagement.
Great article. If you’re ever interested in another example of this, check out Made Open Tasmania and pls follow me (@woolfini) on Twitter as I have just written a blog on my travels to Tasmania last week. Totally echoes what you are saying Dave.