Is the New Normal for Community Engagement Digital-First?


When the global COVID-19 pandemic struck in 2020, we found ourselves home-bound for safety, and our focus completely changed. Our health and the health of others became a top priority, we adjusted our work habits, flexibility was required with childcare and schooling, and what was important to us slowly transformed.

Our time at home began to migrate outdoors, onto our driveways, our sidewalks, our streets, restaurant patios, and public parks. It was while spending so much time in our neighborhoods that we started to remember what we love about where we live, and we became more invested than ever in our communities.

This shift in behavior brought about two important changes in society: the normalcy of online meetings, and the desire to connect more in our communities. Local government agencies can view this shift as a valuable opportunity to evolve how they connect with and get input from their residents as they move to digital-first community engagement.

The Challenges and Imbalances of the Traditional Public Meeting

There are two known truths about in-person public meetings:

  1. Only a segment of the community is represented.
  2. Many more individuals care about the topic, but logistics prevented them from attending.

In 2008, only 24% of Americans had attended at least one local or school meeting in the past year. The reality is that many residents have the desire to share their input on community projects, but when faced with a six o’clock meeting at city hall on a weeknight, life will often win out. The workday goes long, a child needs extra help with homework, or the thought of dealing with traffic, parking, and sitting upon a cold metal chair for hours is too unappealing.

What’s most troubling with the traditional model of public engagement is that many age groups, genders, and races are underrepresented at the meetings. This Slate Business article speaks to the unscientific method of the traditional public meeting, and the selection bias it creates. The question “Who is the ‘Public’, at Public Meetings?” is asked in a 2018 article by Strong Towns.

Questioning the Return to ‘Normal’ for Community Engagement

Many have joked during the pandemic and referred to the pre-COVID-19 era as the “before times”. We have longed for things to go back to normal, and indeed many things were better in the before times. But perhaps not everything. There are opportunities for needed change, and how local agencies connect with their public stakeholders is one of them. The traditional model was overdue for evolution, and when we see how much easier and effective digital-first community engagement is, it begs the question: is digital civic engagement still merely a “nice to have” option?

Digital-first community engagement used to be viewed by government agencies as a “nice to have” add-on to public project communication that could sometimes be costly, and time-consuming. Today, we live in an outreach culture and local agencies need to meet the needs of the communities that they serve, in new ways. Local organizations dedicated to the public have a duty to listen. Providing a place for all residents to engage and interact is a necessity, regardless of their demographics and location.

Digital-first community engagement reaches more people where they are and provides a platform for in-depth feedback, without the constraints of time and location. It brings many voices to the table, ensuring that planning decisions are backed by community support and that there is buy-in on planning projects through each phase of development.

Viewing Social Media as a Partner to Your digital-first community engagement

Social media is a must-have for any private or public sector entity today. The right message through the right channel can take off in an incredibly positive way. For example, the City of Boulder’s award-winning outreach campaign around pedestrian safety utilized Snapchat stories, knowing that a large part of their community is college students on foot or bike.

However, outreach on public projects can fall short when an agency relies solely on social media for communication. This is because social media is largely about informing, while the engagement and feedback elements tend to be lacking the depth needed for a public project. A digital engagement tool focuses on participation from the public and neatly aggregating that feedback, all in one place. A social media feed is cluttered with many topics, and a single post gets buried quickly. When public project information is centralized, and social media is used as a communication tool that drives the visitors to the online platform, it’s the perfect marriage of information and engagement.

The Positive Impact of the Public Voice

It would be easy for a public agency to move forward with plans on a project based on their internal data, information from similar communities, and while following planning and engineering best practices. The finished project may be practical, and follows all the technical specifications, but is completely nonfunctional to the people who want to use it. The reality is: who knows the neighborhood better than the people who live there?

Solutions do not fit the same into every community. The people, the activities, and the culture all reflect what is needed for community visioning. When a municipality truly listens to their residents and takes their feedback into account, they’re not only ensuring the solution best fits with the use, but also that the people are more likely to return and engage on future projects. The difference means truly digging deep and examining how the residents are living in their community. This listening leads to better planning for communities, as well as another particularly important element: trust.

Digital-First Community Engagement at Work

Just what does engagement look like on a digital platform? Granicus’ online software, EngagementHQ provides local agencies with a centralized location for community project information, as well as creative methods to encourage public participation. An effective digital engagement platform frees you from the logistical nightmare of multiple tools and allows you to focus on your strategic messaging, communications strategy, and execution.

Transparent Timelines, Savvy Surveys, and Insightful Input

digital-first community engagement: Survey ExampleIn Tigard, OR, city projects are highlighted on Your Tigard and plainly show where they are in the process. A timeline shows the outcome of city council meetings, plans under review, open surveys, and any official studies underway.

Community input takes on new life for the Town of Blacksburg, VA, on their engagement site, Let’s Talk Blacksburg! In addition to easy, quick polls that display results immediately after participation, the Town encourages feedback by offering a survey for residents’ priorities and concerns, as well as one for ideas around specific projects.

Interactive Maps: Data-rich and Fun

Parks are a beloved part of Boulder, CO, and their community engagement site, Be Heard Boulder, encourages feedback via an interactive map. The map allows site visitors to drop a pin on their favorite park, thus providing Boulder Parks and Recreation with helpful data for their Master Plan Update. The Town of Parker, CO, also makes good use of the interactive map feature in EngagementHQ, giving visitors the chance to mark areas on the town map that they believe need increased traffic enforcement efforts.

Getting Creative with Online Platform Tools

The Town of Parker utilizes the tools available in EngagementHQ in a unique way on their Let’s Talk Parker site. Their Fact or Fiction section encourages residents to post questions from the town rumor mill and receive accurate answers. The Q&A is visible to all visitors.

The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning uses FAQs on their engagement site to explain processes like NEPA, Purpose and Need Statements, Planning and Environmental Linkages studies, and more.

Listening Leads to Long-term Trust

A common barrier to communication that local governments often come up against is general mistrust by the public. If agencies can move away from being process or outcome-oriented and recalibrate their compass to listen, then they are making decisions that will serve the community long-term. When the public feels their voice is heard and sees their collective ideas put into practice, they trust their community leaders more. The shift to online public engagement is much more than a pandemic trend. It’s the avenue for open listening to a broader audience, and long-term public buy-in on community projects. It seems as though digital-first community engagement is here to stay.

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