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The COVID-19 public health crisis has created a challenge for municipalities across the country that want to continue community engagement. Digital engagement tools abound, and people of all ages are gaining new tech skills as they utilize video chat and other platforms to stay in touch and continue school and work. Note, it’s ok to pause and shift gears to more immediate needs, but if you’ve determined your plan needs to move forward, you may be feeling overwhelmed with digital options.

When selecting online tools and designing your activities, you’ll have to consider the basics — accessibility to reliable internet, smart devices, and video-conferencing capability, as well as general user tech-savviness — but your intended outcomes will drive the design:

  • What are the best ways to share out information (e.g., online maps, recorded videos, and webinars)?
  • What tools keep conversations alive and build relationships (e.g., live dialogue through video calls or well-designed online forums)?
  • What activities lead to shared decision-making and plans co-created with stakeholders and community members (e.g., online versions of hands-on problem-solving group activities)?

MAKERS has successfully engaged communities for decades. As we’ve added online engagement over recent years, here are some tips we’ve found helpful to achieve those outcomes.

diagram of stakeholder prioritization

Tailor strategies to audiences. Even before COVID-19, it was good practice to design activities for your specific audience. It’s even more true while social distancing. In particular, reach out to community leaders/advocates in traditionally hard-to-reach/overreached/fatigued communities (e.g., black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), people with low or no incomes, renters, non-English-home-language speakers, LGBTQ+, people with disabilities) to understand:

  1. If they have the capacity to be involved during this time (and if not, reconsider that option to pause).
  2. If they can engage, how are they currently connecting and how would they like to be involved? What will challenge their ability to have a meaningful dialogue?

Some ideas:

  • Interview one-on-one or small groups via phone or video conference (e.g., ZoomMicrosoft TeamsBlueJeansGoToMeetingGoogle Meet). Sometimes, a few deep conversations with knowledgeable representatives provide the necessary information.
  • Meet people where they’re at — online. Just like how you’d normally piggyback off of a local barbecue or religious event, are there pre-existing online activities you could leverage, such as a Facebook Live event, a Zoom industry happy hour, or targeting messages to existing social media groups?
  • Develop culturally appropriate materials. Work with community leaders to develop online content that is relevant to these groups. Google Translate offers an inexpensive way to provide basic information in other languages, but some targeted materials are often necessary.
  • Problem-solve online together. Use the “shared screen” for true sharing of ideas and solutions, through online whiteboards (e.g., the free A Web WhiteboardMuralMiro) and real-time group editing (e.g., Google Docs and Microsoft Teams).
  • Use polls to quickly gauge opinion and move on. Real-time polling (e.g., Poll Everywhere or ParticiPoll) allows participants to vote using cellphones (many services have flip-phone capability) or a computer internet browser. These are particularly valuable for participants to better understand the views of their peers without any “loud” voices drowning out others.
  • Go “old school.” Pick up the phone and talk with your community gatekeepers. They’ll let you know if using mailers, phone surveys, or even a call-in number where people can leave messages would be more effective than online engagement. Remember that some properly socially distanced activities (e.g., school lunches) are still happening and can be a good place for distributing materials.
  • Respect time and expertise, address barriers, and other tips for equitable targeted engagement practices — socially distanced or not — are available from these resources: PolicyLinkFuturewise and Nelson\Nygaard .

Tips and tools for broad digital engagement

Broad engagement — generally best at reaching large, diverse groups of community members at a high level — is useful for building plan advocates. Many types of in-person engagement can translate to online activities, however “synchronous” real-time events and “asynchronous” events in which participants can log in at any point over a longer time period, require different kinds of tools and techniques. Both of these kinds of broad events address some useful “inform and consult” types of engagement, and can be enriched by using some of the tools and tips described below.

Webinars are an example of a “synchronous” event, in which presenters and participants can interact in real time. This interaction is valuable but doesn’t offer schedule flexibility. Participants can submit questions, vote in instant polls and join discussion breakout groups. These kinds of events are appropriate when you know your audience is interested and available. You can post recordings of the event afterwards to share the information in a static format. WebExGoToWebinar and Zoom Webinar are good options for hosting.

“Asynchronous” events like online open houses allow people to participate on their own time. While this flexibility is valuable, the reduced person-to-person interaction limits meaningful conversations that lead to deeper relationships and perspective shifts. Videos and online maps are useful for sharing out information, surveys are good for simple two-way communication, and digital engagement platforms offer multi-way conversations and chances at greater collaboration:

  • Informational video. Video is an ideal format for sharing information online. Concise videos can combine photos of the real world, informational maps and charts, and a personal touch. Sites like YouTube, Vimeo, and Facebook offer free or low-cost video hosting and basic video editing tools. Some cities have video media staff available.
  • Online maps. ESRI’s ArcGIS StoryMaps or Google’s My Maps present custom online maps that supplement surveys or online open house formats. Clear, accessible language and explanations are key to making these tools work for non-planners.
  • Information-rich survey. Perhaps surprisingly, as we’ve built more context and graphics into our surveys, we’ve seen increased response rates. Photos, charts, maps and descriptive text provide the context needed for informed decision-making and sense of ownership over the project. Online survey tools such as SurveyMonkey or Google Forms are inexpensive and easy to use and can stand alone (i.e., don’t require a dedicated project website or more involved engagement platform).
  • Digital engagement platform. Online platforms that support visible community conversations offer opportunities for creative, community-building collaboration. On the other hand, online conversations often bring out the worst in people. Platforms designed specifically for community engagement monitor out harmful language and can solicit and highlight popular community-originated ideas, foster multi-way conversations, reward helpful substantive comments, allow staff to quickly respond to misunderstandings, and develop trust among participants. Social PinpointMind MixerPublicInput, and ConsiderIt have a variety of discussion forums, idea-sparking forums, interactive maps where participants input geo-located ideas and comments, participatory budgeting, surveys, and a range of data and stakeholder tracking and analysis tools.

However, selecting the right technological tools is just one step. Some tips to ensure successful broad online engagement:

  • Be prepared. Event preparation and design is just as important for online events as in-person ones. Choreograph the presentation and interactive elements to hold attention and keep the meeting fun and engaging.
  • Keep it short. Online engagement competes with more distractions than in-person engagement. Concise presentations or videos demonstrate that you value people’s time. Generally people are more likely to watch videos under two minutes in length.
  • Rehearse it first. Online methods may seem more casual, but technical glitches can derail your event. Do a trial run to troubleshoot issues.
  • The missing link. Linking allows participants to dive deeper if they have the time and interest and find the engagement method that works for them. For example, interactive maps or explainer videos enrich an online survey, and a lively online discussion forum is a great place to promote a survey.

Social equity and the digital divide

When planning your digital engagement strategy, it’s also incredibly important to consider barriers to participation and accessibility.

Digital accessibility barriers. While widespread internet access presents opportunities for creative public engagement in the time of COVID-19, digital inequities limit access among different communities:

  • Low-income households and communities of color are more likely to rely on smartphones than broadband for internet access.
  • Not all adults use smart phones — about 15% have other types of cell phones and 4% do not have cell phones. Older people, people with low incomes, and people who live in rural areas are less likely to have smartphones.
  • Many rural areas lack broadband internet.
  • People with visual impairments can have trouble interacting with image-heavy media.
  • Literacy and language barriers apply just as much to online engagement as traditional methods.

Best practices for accessibility. Though the following best practices won’t address the root causes of the digital divide, they can lead to more meaningful and inclusive dialogue:

  • Use simple design for surveys and project websites that make it easy to navigate with a smart phone or in areas with slow internet speeds.
  • Consider providing text-only versions of surveys if low internet speeds are a concern.
  • Add image alt-text to facilitate use of a text-reader for people with visual impairments. When possible, check the reading order of tables and websites.
  • Translate materials into relevant languages for the target communities.
  • Avoid jargon and overly complex language to increase readability.

Leave a good impression

Community engagement during social distancing is not perfect, but neither are traditional in-person engagement approaches. Most adults will never attend a public meeting, but 90% of adults regularly use the web and 72% use social media. Executed well, your agency will involve new community members while supporting an easy transition for those who have already been involved.

First impressions have a lasting impact. As many people try participating online in local government for the first time, they’ll remember if they felt frustrated or delighted. Please contact us to help you make community engagement during the time of COVID-19 a successful, exciting, equitable experience for you and the communities you serve.

MAKERS architecture and urban design, LLP

MAKERS is an award-winning architectural, urban design, and planning firm providing services to clients throughout the Pacific Northwest and the United States. Founded in 1972, the firm provides a client-oriented approach stressing attention to project requirements, design quality, and budget. Our specialties include urban design, community planning, and facility planning. MAKERS is a certified women business enterprise (WBE) and disadvantaged business enterprise (DBE).