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Community engagement: The innovations changing how it’s done

14 min read
The way governments engage communities is changing. How are government leaders rethinking community engagement in their organizations? It starts with a conversation!


What is community engagement?

Community engagement is one of the most commonplace research activities in government. Governments engage their communities to understand experience, needs, priorities, and more. Community engagement can take many forms, from in-person meetings or workshops to always-on digital open doors. Community engagement helps governments build community-centric programs, plans, and policy – sometimes in collaboration with community members themselves!

But, like everything in this post-pandemic world, the way governments engage communities is changing. How are government leaders rethinking community engagement in their organizations? It starts with a conversation!

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Examples of community engagement

And why is it important to innovate? Well, let’s set the scene. Think about a new economic development initiative in a city. You’re running a big planning process to figure out the barriers and needs to develop, and community input is critical to success (maybe even mandatory!). Up until that point, your government has relied heavily on traditional community engagement practices: events, council, town halls – all focused on in-person meetings. But, unsurprisingly, these efforts have left you with the same kind of input, from the same community groups over and over again.

Maybe you decide to start incorporating digital engagement. Your resources are limited so you get scrappy and create a free survey form. You partner with community organizations to get the word out, blast the town with snazzy fliers, and end up with more responses than the in-person meetings ever saw.

At the time, it was a huge win! But, when we look back at that scenario today, we see even more opportunity. We see an opportunity to build ongoing relationships with respondents and engage them in future program design, an opportunity to expand beyond an online form to all channel engagement, and more.

Don’t get us wrong, surveys are still an important and wonderful part of the community engagement toolbox. But, when we see how government leaders are collaborating with community partners today, even to the point of sharing decision-making power? Whew! That’s what gets us excited.

So, what does community engagement of the future look like? Let’s take a look.

What is the role of community engagement?

First, we want to underscore community engagement’s role in government. We have all seen examples of community engagement as a “check the box” process. But the reality is, community engagement is a critical element of government. We cannot – and we mean cannot!  – build programs, policies, or plans that meet community needs without understanding and prioritizing community experience. And, what’s the best way to find that out? Ask! Or, as the mantra goes: “nothing about me, without me!”

Five degrees of community engagement

Of course, there are many ways to “ask” and execute community engagement. We like to think about it in a spectrum. The further you move along the spectrum, the deeper the level of engagement. Different scenarios call for different spots on the spectrum and different types of conversations with your community.

Community engagement model

Our framework is influenced by the International Association for Public Participation, augmented by our subject matter experts.

1. Outreach

Governments communicate with the public frequently. Sometimes that communication is critical to life and safety, other times, it’s announcing policy decisions, or projects that matter to communities. Either way, it falls to government leaders to figure out the best way to communicate information in a way that resonates with all community members.

We like to call this the “we will keep you informed” level of community engagement. Common outreach channels include: website updates, email campaigns, fliers, etc. Outreach doesn’t ask for community members to respond, but rather listen.

Just because it doesn’t require active participation, however, doesn’t mean it’s easy. The pandemic is a great example of how challenging outreach can be to get right. Governments had to tell the public how to keep themselves and their communities safe, all while figuring out what is safe in the middle of a rapidly worsening public health crisis – talk about crucial conversations!

Increasingly, governments are using data to focus their community outreach efforts. Collecting proactive and passive data like where people access information, which language or device they prefer, what messages resonate most, and from whom, helps governments tailor their communication efforts for each community group.

2. Consult

When governments practice consultative community engagement, they typically ask community members to weigh in on a specific decision, analysis, or set of alternatives. Then, agencies take that feedback into consideration for final decisions or program implementation.

Government agencies approach this kind of engagement by saying, “we will acknowledge your concerns and provide feedback on how public input influenced the decision”. Often, governments seek this kind of input via comment periods at public meetings, feedback sections on a home page, or brief surveys housed on a website.

Consultative feedback might be mandatory in strategic planning or community development project. A common example is soliciting input on a neighborhood rezone or local economic development policy. But, public agencies often find it tricky to know whether they’re hearing broad community sentiment or merely comments from the loudest voices with the most resources.

To address those concerns, governments are finding innovative ways to ensure they’re gathering representative feedback. Leveraging technology to better understand community members’ demographics can help governments validate whether the input received represents their community as a whole.

3. Involve

Moving along the spectrum, we start to see governments practice community engagement that involves the public throughout a decision-making process. As opposed to concentrating public comment on a specific project milestone, governments might engage communities in advance of project scoping, during planning, and again at key decision points.

Here, governments start grounding projects in a community-led direction, “we will ensure your concerns and aspirations are directly reflected in the alternatives we develop”. These engagements could take the form of a community workshop or polling throughout project development.

Governments might use this kind of community engagement to inform the design of a public park. They might ask for input in advance of finalizing designs and then present a few alternatives for the public to weigh in on.

In addition to representative input, a big challenge in this type of engagement is figuring out how to get actionable feedback. Many governments struggle to build capacity for this work internally and instead rely on external firms to run community engagement alongside a project.

Governments who use digital engagement tools are finding it easier and easier to stand up robust community engagement programs in-house. Leaders can even create digital listening posts to continuously collect community input over the course of a project or to initiative. These tools can drastically cut down on manual analysis of results and, when combined with validated methodology, help ensure leaders act on the right insights.

4. Collaborate

When governments start to bring communities into the project process itself, they unlock a whole new world of community-centered government. Collaborative community engagement includes actively partnering with local communities at every step of a project or decision.

In collaborative community engagement, governments might create a focused coalition of community partners to guide project development from conception to completion. They might combine coalition guidance with widespread input at key milestones. The key to collaboration is shared leadership, saying “we will ask you to be a key, active, and present player to help us build the right solutions”.

Of course, this kind of community engagement requires a high level of civic engagement. Community members might dedicate their time on a regular basis for many months, as they partner with a public agency to shape a local levy or co-design a new transit hub. Finding willing community partners can be tough.

The good news is, there are more and more ways to approach community involvement creatively. Some governments use engagement methods across the spectrum to source panels of community members who want to participate in collaborative engagement. Others find low-barrier ways to collaborate with community partners, like quick but frequent pulses, or check-ins that can be quickly completed on a mobile phone.

5. Empower

The final stage of the community engagement spectrum is empowerment, and, if you’re looking for inspiration, this is a great place to be. When governments empower community members, they literally flip the script on traditional community engagement. Instead of making a decision behind the proverbial closed doors, governments turn the decision over to the public and say, “we will implement what you decide”.

Participatory budgeting is a great example of an empowered community engagement effort that has been gaining momentum in recent years. In participatory budgeting, governments work with a group of community partners to shape the budgeting program and then host a voting period where community members decide how to allocate a pool of funds.

Like collaborative community engagement efforts, empowerment efforts also rely on high levels of civic engagement. But as governments start to recognize the transformative power of designing plans, programs, and policies with – not for – communities, leaders are finding more ways to share power and encourage community participation.

With modern engagement tools, leaders can host decision-making processes digitally, for example, as opposed to relying on in-person deliberation. Multiple engagement channels – mobile, phone, in-person, online, etc. – allow leaders to expand community engagement efforts and reach more people. They might start an empowerment engagement by first soliciting community ideas through a widespread ask and then asking community members to vote on their preferred options.

How to encourage community engagement

Now you might read the community engagement spectrum and think, “great! But how do I get my community members to actually participate in these efforts?”. Maybe you’ve even tried some of the engagement strategies but struggled to get enough – or a representative sample – of community members to respond. First, know that you are not alone. Getting enough people to participate is the number one challenge facing local government leaders when they practice community engagement.

Luckily, there are best practices to increase engagement and amplify the impact of your community engagement efforts. Behind the scenes of successful engagement efforts, leaders integrate these principles into their engagement practice.

Lead with inclusivity

Unfortunately, it’s all too common for governments to review their community engagement results and only then realize that large parts of their community were left out. The advice? Don’t wait for results to think about inclusion. Design a community engagement plan to proactively reach all community groups.

That means partnering with community members to understand where and how they prefer to engage and what they might need to participate. Community engagement tools that offer multi-channel distributions, like phone, digital, in-person, mobile, etc. will help you meet your residents where they are. Look for additional features like auto-language detection and translation to ensure your engagement itself does not present a language barrier.

Listen to the experts (aka your community!) at scale

In the past, community engagement relied on time-intensive town halls or one-to-one conversations. While these face-to-face interactions are great for strengthening relationships, we now know that limiting engagement to these traditional forms leaves out wide swaths of our public (think: parents who have to get home to their kids or people who work a night shift).

Instead, leverage technology to engage your community at scale. Prioritize tools with modern user interfaces that are designed to make it as easy as possible for people to participate. Some tools will even analyze your own engagement questions and provide specific tips for how to increase engagement.

Start a conversation, not a one-off project

Too often in government, we wait for the annual project to ask for feedback – that’s true for community and employee engagement. But community members experience the impacts of our programs, plans, and policies every day. Big events can disrupt life in our community in the blink of an eye. If we wait for that annual survey date, we’ll miss countless opportunities to understand community experience and practice responsive, community-led government.

To shift your engagement efforts from one-off projects to conversations, look for tools that allow you to continuously collect community experience data and analyze it for you. You might consider a digital open door that allows residents to provide feedback in their own words or proactive pulses that can be quickly deployed after a major event.

Action in community engagement

The future community engagement toolbox scales with your program

For governments everywhere, the community engagement toolbox is growing. Now governments can immediately deploy a digital pulse after a large-scale event to understand how community members feel and what they might need. Leaders can form a coalition from their engagement roster to partner on program design and pilot early iterations for feedback. At the heart of this new toolbox is the ability to scale – the power to reach everyone in your community, no matter where they are. That makes it easier and easier to understand and prioritize everyone’s experience in every program, plan, or policy.

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