How to Boost Public Involvement with a Community Engagement Platform
- Caitlin Bennett
- January 23, 2023
- 5 minute read
Communities need to have safe, accessible, and inclusive spaces for public involvement. These spaces have traditionally been town halls or in-person community consultations. Recent digital evolution has sparked a growing conversation about how online engagement tools can motivate citizens to participate in democracy beyond election time and play an active role in shaping their future.
Public involvement is essential for strengthening democracy in an era of significant political and digital change, characterised by decreasing trust in formal political institutions and citizens engaging in public forums, such as social media, to express their views.
However, many people experience democracy as the opportunity to vote at election time, rather than something that they can constantly participate in to affect meaningful change throughout their lives.
So, how do we help citizens discover more opportunities to shape their future?
Online community engagement platforms can cater to the public’s growing expectation for convenient digital experiences while creating the material conditions that are required for many to participate in democracy. They are easy to access and give citizens a taste of their own agency. If used well, they can encourage further public involvement in the future.
Inspired by Hahrie Han’s research into the importance of making the involvement of ordinary people in democracy possible, probable, and powerful, let’s explore three ways that governments can bake participatory democracy into the community psyche and build equitable futures with online community engagement tools.
- Give people the ability to get involved.
- Make people want to participate.
- Show the community why involvement matters.
1. Give people the ability to get involved.
Online community engagement platforms help to overcome some of the common barriers to participation in face-to-face methods. They are available 24/7 from any device with an internet connection, which instantly opens up the opportunity for more people to partake in public involvement initiatives.
While online engagement tools should never be used alone, they enable new segments of the community such as full-time workers, busy parents, carers, and young students to participate because they don’t have to be present at a community consultation at a certain time. Mobile responsive platforms also make it possible for people without access to a computer to engage.
Online materials can also be easily translated into multiple languages with various accessibility features that allow a range of community members to engage in their preferred language or learning style.
2. Make people want to participate.
Making public involvement easy isn’t enough. It’s also important to make people want to participate. People aren’t born with a willingness to engage in public life. Rather, it needs to be cultivated through their everyday experiences.
As citizens become more aware of their agency and have positive experiences with democracy, their capacity and motivation to act will grow. Organizations can teach citizens the skills of citizenship by providing information about how to participate via their online engagement platform and communications.
An engagement platform that turns anonymous visitors into active and engaged digital citizens is incredibly powerful. This means you can also create positive experiences by enhancing usability and making it easy for citizens to find, follow, and contribute to projects that align with their values.
The online environment can also make people who aren’t confident speaking up in public more comfortable to voice their ideas. Rather than trying to break into a heated conversation (in a meeting or on social media), they can voice their opinion at any time, in a safe space, anonymously to the public.
Shifting conversations about public life from social media, onto a safe and moderated platform also gives governments the opportunity to correct misinformation and encourage productive discussion.
The more that people positively engage with others and contribute to community-decision making, the more they will value it.
3. Show the community why involvement matters.
People need to see that their input has had a tangible impact and improved people’s lives to want to participate in political processes in the future. Motivation and authority need to be in alignment for people to act.
Online engagement platforms can help governments build their strategic capacity to aggregate collective input, align decision-making, and show that they can deliver optimal outcomes.
It’s possible to generate data visualizations and downloadable reports that relay the community’s ideas and feedback in a digestible way. If qualitative research methods were used, AI and machine learning can also be used to efficiently identify and act on key themes and sentiments.
The data also makes it easier to report back to the community about what input was received, how it was used, and how it translated into outcomes. A “digital paper trail” proves how different perspectives were considered. If a citizen’s desired outcome wasn’t achieved, they can see the other alternatives that had to be considered, accept the decision, and understand that their voice still has authority.
Ensure ability, motivation, and authority are in alignment.
When used the right way, online engagement platforms can help governments bring citizen capacity, motivation, and authority to act in alignment. They can help the community to realize its ability to drive change and shape futures beyond election time. As public involvement grows, governments can fine-tune their own decision-making and support the community more effectively.