Look Back at 2023 Online Community Engagement Trends
- Andrew Coulson
- January 25, 2024
- 7 minute read
Before we look forward and reveal our predictions for the top 2024 trends in online community engagement, let’s look back. 2023 was the year that saw some very clear trends, especially in the digital community space. We saw hybrid engagement come of age, we saw really clear stages in engagement, and we even saw the rise of AI. Below, we’ve listed the five trends we have mapped as the top 2023 online community engagement trends.
- The Solidification of Hybrid Engagement
- Staged Engagement
- Community Development and Going Beyond the Project
- Participatory Budgeting
- The Initial Adoption of AI in Community Engagement
1. The Solidification of Hybrid Engagement
We predicted this two years ago and it was certainly de rigueur for most when planning community engagement over the past year. Various forms exist, but many projects showcased a mix of online and offline engagement strategies.
The City of Port Adelaide Enfield represented this trend well with their ‘School Idea’s Pitch’ Project, which saw students act as elected members and make mock Council decisions on various issues offline. Their ideas were then shared online for community comment and support through upvoting, with some ideas being taken to the Council’s chamber for discussion. This was a great way to get younger members of the community engaged in what local government does at an early age and a good example of the value of hybrid engagement.
On the Canadian side, Clarington in Ontario implemented a robust hybrid engagement strategy for their Parks, Recreation and Culture Master Plan, which included pop-up open houses around town, online meetings at various times of day, asynchronous digital engagement surveys, and even in-person kiosks at City Hall. The kiosks in particular saw great positive feedback on bridging the digital divide and high levels of engagement throughout the second half of 2023. It will be exciting to see how the kiosks are used going forward, and how peer municipalities learn from Clarington’s example.
2. Staged Engagement
When we say staged, we don’t mean fake news. Instead, what we mean are consultations with multiple stages of engagement from early engagement, even pre-engagement, through to closing the loop. Using a digital engagement platform makes staged engagement even easier and facilities a more robust process.
This was perfectly presented in Strathbogie Shire’s ‘Public Art’ Project, which started with pre-engagement to engage the community before the project had officially begun to see what community members were feeling, and ended with closing the loop to ensure that the participants were able to see the results of the project once it was concluded and so they could see their influence on the outcome.
With large and long-term planning projects, a similar goal can be achieved by using the same project space over time. Island County, Washington (USA), recently launched their Comprehensive Planning process with the intention of collecting ideas in the visioning stage, before later moving into the plan development stage. This will allow participants to influence the process while it’s still being developed and to find upcoming engagement opportunities both in- person and online.
3. Community Development and Going Beyond the Project
Late in 2023, at a conference in Canberra one of the speakers said, “people don’t live in projects, they live in places.” We couldn’t agree more. In the online space, what we have seen in the last year is the ‘traditional’ online community engagement starting to go beyond the project and transitioning to include more ongoing relationship and community development type projects. This will certainly continue into 2024 as it adds more value to the online space and also helps maintain and engage the online community.
In 2023, a stand out project in Australia was the City of Port Adelaide Enfield’s ‘Get Shady’ project which engaged the community long term to distribute over 3000 native species of trees to help create a shade canopy to tackle climate change. This simple yet important project has helped the local government develop its relationship with the community on an issue that is on everyone’s minds while not providing a strict timeline.
We also saw elements of this ‘beyond the project’ style work in North America in towns like Deforest, Wisconsin, where they are using Social Pinpoint to capture community spirit and a little bit of Citizen Science around birdwatching and acknowledging the role of community advocates to preserve and support this activity.
4. Participatory Budgeting
Participatory Budgeting started in Brazil in the 1980s, and it was used across Europe as a recovery tool to the Global Financial Crisis (GFC). It is now growing in use throughout Australia and North America. It’s not surprising that we are starting to see a big increase in the use of Social Pinpoint’s Fund It tool.
Now a popular tool, Fund It is certainly seeing more use in local government budgeting processes. It’s also often used in funding community projects; for example, participatory budgeting and tradeoff exercises can be used to engage the public in choosing everything from building elements of playgrounds and dog parks, to voting on the final designs for public art and mural projects.
A favorite of ours is Bayside City Council’s ‘Library of Things‘ because it encapsulates the local government’s desire to spend public money on items for the library, like lawn mowers and kitchen utensils. But it takes away the stigmatic cost element by first asking the Community to choose items using points in the Fund-it tool and secondly by asking them to provide their own ideas via the Gather tool. While there is no project decision here to be made, the community is using participatory budgeting to own its Library of Things.
In Monterey, California, they deployed the Fund It tool to assess community values around distribution of housing units (instead of dollars or points!). The question posed was: “We need to accommodate X many additional housing units in Monterey over the next X many years, how would you distribute those units among the following neighborhoods?” The Fund It tool gave project managers space to explain the tradeoffs involved in choosing different neighborhoods while still keeping the budgeting exercise simple enough to be accessible to a broad cross-section of interested community members.
5. The Initial Adoption of AI in Community Engagement
While we are only just really learning the possible impacts (good and bad) of AI in community engagement, ChatGPT set the world alight earlier in 2023 with talk of how AI could help us with our everyday lives. If you attended any conference between September and December 2023 in the community engagement space, you would have surely encountered at least one workshop, session or keynote on the subject. Earlier last year, IAP2 North America even hosted a six-part series on the role of AI in public participation while at least three sessions at the IAP2 Australasian Conference were about AI.
What we have learnt is that there are both advantages and disadvantages to early adoption with AI. Speed and efficiency are great at an organizational level; however, the human element is often critical in a community engagement context, and data privacy and reputational risk must be carefully considered in the deployment of AI tools. Are your communities and stakeholders ready for it, even if you are?
We were excited to see these trends advance the field of community engagement in 2023. While some of these trends, such as hybrid engagement, continued to build from previous years, we expect many of these trends, like the growth of AI, will certainly continue to take shape into 2024.