How to identify and reduce risk in community engagement


As a local government employee, you strive to balance the needs and wants of all your current and future residents within the framework provided by your regulations, processes, and politics. You believe in the value of community engagement and know it’s necessary to facilitate community-informed decision-making. But how do you prioritize risk reduction in community engagement, especially within online public involvement?

What are the risks associated with community engagement?

When starting a public project, the local government staff involved often have their own fears of impending risks. For the city planners or engineers involved in the project, there can be a fear of getting an answer that they might not agree with as the end result of the consultation. For the communications professional running the outreach, it might be the fear of not being prepared enough.

Additionally, staff may be hesitant to take the risk of requiring socio-economic and/or demographic information from their online site registrants. But, adding those types of registration questions holds people accountable by ensuring they are a part of the community, weeding out those who want a quick and easy way to complain.

Examples of risks involved in community engagement:

  • Project and process impacts
  • Disrespectful, malicious, inflammatory, obscene, intolerant, inappropriate, or illegal conversations
  • Public criticism
  • Unrealistic expectations (this can be from the public, or from the agency leadership)
  • Data reliability
  • Bias/predetermined outcome
  • Digital divide/computer literacy
  • Community confusion
  • Lack of participation
  • Overzealous participation
  • Resource availability and cost
  • Engagement fatigue

What this list doesn’t include are the risks or fears from the public when they are coming to the table to engage. There may be a general distrust of government, a fear of public speaking, insecurity around English being a second language, or fear of in-person meetings due to the pandemic. The good news is that a community engagement platform solves or addresses many of these risks.

Strategies to reduce the risks of community engagement

First, it’s helpful to establish rules of community engagement with your team. If you commit to following the rules and apply them throughout your process over and over again, you will be improving risk reduction with community engagement.

Four rules for reducing risk:

  1. Engage consistently, authentically, and transparently
  2. Tell the truth and don’t be shy
  3. If you ask a question, listen to the answer, then share your decision, action, or outcome
  4. Improve and repeat

Next, form an engagement strategy. This could be for a certain project, or your agency’s overall approach going forward.

Community engagement strategy

  1. Engagement Purpose
  2. SMART Objectives
  3. Internal Expectations/Process
    • Questions
    • Milestones
    • Data
    • Decision-makers/making
  4. Stakeholders and Communities
  5. Risk Assessment & Reduction
  6. Engagement Tools & Techniques
  7. Reporting, Communications, and Promotion

When addressing number five on the list, we suggest creating a risk matrix.

Risk matrix

Risk Matrix Impact vs probability

High Impact/High Probability. Example: Topics that you know are controversial. Ask yourself how you can provide resources to address the concerns.

Low Impact/High Probability. Example: Public criticism. This is something you just have to plan for; there’s not much you need to do around it.

Low Impact/Low Probability. Example: Engagement fatigue or data reliability. Address this with your strategy itself, as well as good communication throughout the process.

High Impact/Low Probability. Example: Bias, overzealous participation. These are the things you don’t expect to happen but should keep an eye out for.

Completing this risk assessment not only helps prevent things from going sideways but also gives you a sense of preparedness for any situation. 

Choosing the right tools to obtain the information you need

After you determine what questions you will ask participants, ask yourself how you will use the information. Some tools in EngagementHQ are more open; designed to show participants what each other is thinking. Other tools are all about information gathering.

Decide upfront if you are just informing about a project or offering a two-way conversation.

You can also strike a balance between those two approaches. The Q&A tool within EngagementHQ shows questions from residents, and answers from the staff–publicly. This way everyone can see the conversation and there’s no confusion or rumors about what city staff said.

Moderate and manage

Another strategy for risk reduction in community engagement involves moderation and management of all facets of the process.

  • Use a third-party moderator if you can
  • Set clear and impartial moderation ground rules
  • Never edit contributions
  • Encourage direct posting to the site
  • Set the context and the expectations
  • Share how you will use the inputs
  • Consider facilitation

When things don’t go as planned during a public consultation

A risk we don’t often think about is the risk of too much participation. A city in California began using EngagementHQ and was excited to utilize the interactive map within the Places tool. They invited citizens to drop pins on the map, indicating what size buildings they felt were appropriate for different areas of the city.

What the city staff didn’t anticipate was one overzealous resident dropping over 2,000 pins on the map within three days! This not only skewed the data but also influenced others using the map, who didn’t know that so many of the pins were from one person.

The same resident began posting inaccuracies on the platform which other participants were reading. In response, the city decided to open a Forum on the site and encouraged the resident to post their thoughts there and have a conversation with other community members.

Rather than blocking him from the platform they instead honored his passion and the time he wanted to spend on the issue. The lesson is that you can change your strategy along the way.

And that map with all the extra pins? It wasn’t a problem in EngagementHQ. City staff were able to create a second map, restate the guidelines for using it, and then export the data from both maps into a GIS file. They were even able to include or exclude the extra pins from the enthusiastic resident. This provided rich data analysis.

When things go off the rails remember you can re-state the ground rules/guidelines for input, or pivot to a new tool. You can use any data you get, even if it’s overwhelming at first.

Planning and strategy reduce risk in community engagement

By developing a community engagement strategy including format, technique, and tool selection, you will reduce the risks associated with public participation.

Remember, the riskiest thing you can do when it comes to community engagement: not engage!

Read case studies to learn how government agencies are putting online engagement to work in their communities.

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