This blog was originally published on March 25, 2015.
The wide array of online public engagement tools available today provide planners with a plethora of ways to reach out to their communities and gather more informed public input.
But what’s the true payoff of online engagement? Here are some of the most common things we hear from customers about the return-on-investment (ROI) of online community engagement:
Gain a broader reach by including the voices that would typically remain silent
Public meetings have set meeting times and locations, making it inconvenient for most people in your community to attend. Plus, those with a strong negative opinion are typically the most willing to go out of their way to show up at public meetings, filling most community workshops with naysayers instead of being a true representation of broad public opinion.
Online community engagement provides the average citizen who is unable to attend public meetings, or who would otherwise remain silent at face-to-face events, a chance to participate and provide their feedback in a very safe and private way. By making the engagement experience more accessible and a lot less intimidating, you’ll increase your level of engagement as well as the diversity of the people you hear from.
Uncover what the public truly wants and values
With traditional outreach, you rarely hear from the open-minded moderates in your community. While you may have a perceived notion of what they want, you might be surprised what the broader public actually thinks.
The Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization in Florida assumed that the majority of their local community was in favor of the current state of the downtown area – urban sprawl with no major density downtown where most people commuted. This assumption was based on what they were used to hearing from the “public” at traditional workshops and in-person meetings. After making the switch to online engagement and using MetroQuest to obtain over 9,575 survey responses from a broad demographic, the results indicated that over 80% of the community was actually in favor of a much more densely populated downtown core with extensive public transportation options and support for cyclists.
Don’t base your decisions on the loud minority in your community.
Save time on plan approvals and implementation
By obtaining more informed and meaningful input from a larger and more diverse portion of the community, projects have greater community acceptance and get approved a lot quicker.
Before transitioning to online engagement, Paul Kraehling, a planner at the City of Guelph, was familiar with facing opposition when it comes to planning projects. His department used to deal with many costly appeals during major planning proposals. After making the switch to online and using MetroQuest surveys to facilitate their engagement, their team was able to collect more robust, informed public data from a much wider audience. And for the first time in their history, they received no appeals from the Municipal Board. This subsequently led to an increase in the speed and efficiency of getting their plan underway as they could move to the implementation phase immediately after.
Avoid false starts and failed plans
The harsh reality is that some projects outright fail. A city might spend tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars creating a plan, only for the plan to fail for lack of community or political support. The plan may have initially been given the go ahead, but somewhere between approval and implementation, it got overturned or stopped by community resistance. Not only is a plan that is doomed to fail a huge waste of taxpayers’ funds, it’s also very costly in terms of political “capital”.
With more robust public data from online community engagement, planners are better equipped to uncover hidden issues and build real community support before moving forward.
Build community trust
Time and time again you can read reports about public agencies that suffer from poor reputations in their communities. These bad relationships between the agencies and the public make it more difficult to get projects done.
Compared to traditional outreach, online community engagement provides the public with an accessible way to participate, making them feel more heard and valued, leading to a greater level of trust between the agency and the general public.
While the cost of an online public engagement tool may seem significant upfront, the return on investment is huge. In a recent blog, I compared the cost of in-person and online public engagement. We found that $500 to $1,000 per participant is not an uncommon amount for traditional public meetings, while online community engagement can drive that number down significantly to $5 per participant or less.
As we always tell our customers, better engagement leads to getting a better view of public opinion and gaining community acceptance of proposed plans. Who doesn’t want that?