Should I Use Online Community Engagement Tools?

If you want to reach more citizens and make more informed decisions, then you should definitely consider using online community engagement tools. We’ll show you why they are on the rise and how to use them to get the best insights from your next engagement effort.

Online community engagement tools are becoming essential.

Across the world, trust in government is at an all-time low and citizen expectations are rising. Empowered by information and technology, and armed with their keyboards and social media following, citizens have the capacity to engage their government, question decisions, and insert themselves into policy-making processes more than ever before. Government leaders (and organizations alike) have realized the need to be more proactive in their approach to the public, resulting in a wave of civic engagement efforts and an increased uptake of accessible online community engagement tools.

To close the gap and empower the growing social consciousness, governments are caught in a delicate balancing act of using the latest technology to meet the rising expectations of hyper-connected citizens, while still reaching those offline.

Why should we engage online?

Increased use of the internet presents a range of new communication and consultative opportunities. We can increase our reach when we incorporate ways for the community to provide feedback online and give those that are unable to participate in traditional face-to-face methods an avenue to engage. Not only that, online community engagement tools empower the government and organizations with a more diverse pool of insights to inform decision-making.

The vehicles for governments to develop solutions from the outside, rather than trying to solve every challenge themselves are there. By increasing the breadth and depth of civic engagement with online tools, governments have the potential to become informed and intelligent enablers of better societal outcomes.

Online engagement tools will never replace the emotional impact of face-to-face engagement, but they are affordable and increase your reach. With a wider view of citizen needs and data at their fingertips, governments can refine their decision-making capabilities, enhance public outcomes, and rebuild trust.

Should I use online community engagement tools?

The more meaningful and productive forms of engagement rely on well-structured interactions between citizens, the government, and organizations. In the context of a long-term strategic civic engagement plan, you can choose from a range of online and face-to-face tactical tools that work best in different scenarios.

The first factor to consider is the size of the engagement and whether a one-way or two-way flow of information is required, keeping in mind that one-way flows of information are easier to organize and scale than activities based on two-way interaction.

You also need to determine who needs to be engaged and their levels of access to different engagement methods. If online tools are to be used, you also have to understand where citizens are online, how they prefer to be engaged, and what they expect from the government.

IAP2 has developed a Public Participation Spectrum which also helps governments and organizations to tailor their efforts around the public’s defined role in any participation process.

The spectrum ranges from informing the public on problems being solved to placing the final decision in their hands. Depending on the promise you are making to the public and the level of impact that they can have on the final decision, different tools can be used.

What online community engagement tools can I use in different situations?

When you are informing the public about decisions that have been made, a dedicated landing page that explains the problem being solved, alternatives considered, and the final solutions can be used.

When you are consulting the public to obtain feedback on decisions and alternatives, online surveys and voting tools give your community a way to share their feedback and provide quantitative, actionable insights.

When you are involving the public in decision-making to ensure that their concerns and aspirations are considered, interactive maps can be an avenue for location-based information sharing and feedback. The community can show exactly where their ideas or concerns are over time.

When you are collaborating with the public to develop alternatives and solutions, collaborative ideas walls and forums can digitally capture, organize, and summarize the public’s ideas, suggestions, and discussions.

When you are empowering the public by placing the final decision in their hands, participatory budgeting can give citizens a direct way to prioritize public spending.

How do you meet the rising expectations of hyper-connected citizens?

The value of real-time reporting.

Governments and organizations gather a lot of data throughout their consultation processes. Online tools and integrated reporting within civic engagement software can analyze all of this information and turn it into actionable insights at any time during a project.

Online reports can showcase a wealth of granular and aggregate information, including the number of visits to engagement pages, participant demographics, sentiment trends, conversation themes, and more. This means you can make more informed decisions and be transparent about your approach.

A continuous conversation between governments and citizens.

Given their reach and affordability, online tools enable continuous conversations and productive relationships between governments and citizens. However, their success relies upon a long-term engagement infrastructure and online tools will never be able to replace the intimacy of face-to-face interactions. Decision-makers have to take a long-term view to build relationships and constantly be willing to tailor their approach as their community’s expectations and aspirations change over time.