Online community engagement: connecting government organizations to community

The global decline of trust in government produces an array of complex questions and challenges for contemporary democracies.
Casey Earp, Bang the Table | October 29, 2018
Shutterstock

The global decline of trust in government produces an array of complex questions and challenges for contemporary democracies. However, they consistently highlight the changing relationships and expectations between citizens, community, and governments - both online and offline. With trust in governments stagnant at a recent all-time low, it is evident that citizens have been feeling unheard in the conversations that sustain democracy.

Meanwhile, local, state and federal governments and agencies continue to embrace community engagement and build opportunities for public participation in service design and policy development. These ongoing efforts underline a vital role for citizens, community, and stakeholders in the innovation and collaboration necessary to find ways forward that reflect their shared values. Decision-makers are increasingly acknowledging the need to listen to and understand the communities they serve. From unpacking community and stakeholder priorities to addressing conflict and helping find common ground, community engagement is speaking to the pressing need for democracy to do better. 

What is online community engagement and why is it important?

Community members are regular and enthusiastic participants in online discussions on the issues they care about. But where are these conversations happening? Social media is an obvious location and often a standard component of government outreach and communication. But, while social media may seem like a great way to get information out to the community, it has proven to have severe limitations for listening and responding to what community members and residents have to say. (Learn more about how government organizations can address the limitations of social media for community engagement.)

Digital tools and platforms for public consultations are bringing new capabilities and opportunities to community engagement. Used alongside face-to-face engagement, online community engagement extends participation - in addition to addressing some of the practical limitations of traditional methods and creating new possibilities for hybrid methods.

Online community engagement is all about facilitating productive and measurable conversations. Governments and policymakers are increasingly turning to the collected insights and priorities that emerge from these conversations to inform better, more responsive decisions. To many government agencies, these engagement spaces are the missing piece in their communications, an investment in their democratic relationships with citizens and community. Communications teams tasked with selecting a platform or software for online engagement will have to consider a few crucial challenges. As with any facilitated conversation, online engagement demands a careful consideration of issues and objectives in creating effective online dialogue.

What is the IAP2’s Public Participation Spectrum?

Spectrum of Public Participation (c) International Association for Public Participation

Speaking to the goal of participation at each level, the IAP2 Spectrum spells out how much influence the community can expect in a decision-making or planning process. 

As something which describes both a process and an outcome, community engagement in decision-making is widely understood to rest on the level of participation promised to the public as defined by the Spectrum of Public Participation developed by the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2).

The IAP2 developed the Spectrum to illustrate the levels of participation that shape the extent and expectations of public input in a community engagement or citizen involvement project.

Each participation level represents a commitment on how much the public can expect to influence a decision-making process. The Spectrum identifies the following five levels of participation and offers a corresponding promise to the public:

1) Inform - to supply the public with information on the issues at stake

2) Consult - to inform, collect and acknowledge public feedback

3) Involve - to work with the public and reflect their concerns

4) Collaborate - to co-produce solutions and embed public input into decisions

5) Empower - to enact solutions based on what the public decides

The Spectrum represents levels, not stages in a process. Each level can stand alone in a particular context, distinguishing itself by the extent of influence it promises to the public. Widely quoted, adapted, referenced, and reimagined, the Spectrum is an international standard and a useful tool for practitioners across contexts. It remains a relevant framework even as engagement activities are increasingly finding their way online. 

How does the spectrum support the role of the public or community in planning or decision-making?

The Spectrum is a valuable resource for defining and answering a fundamental question for any engagement: the purpose of engagement. Defining the purpose of engagement, broadly or in specific contexts or initiatives, is vital to creating effective consultations. Once defined, this purpose sets out a reference point for engagement. Each of the levels of participation identified by the Spectrum represents a sort of reason to engage, speaking to the ‘why’ of engagement.

The framework plainly describes the promise of engagement at each level of participation. On selection, this level can speak to the type of interaction necessary and ask how this can be facilitated. For instance, designing a project at the ‘Collaborate’ level can have a distinct set of requirements in comparison to one at the ‘Inform’ level. The Spectrum can also respond to changing needs and flexibility in working with multiple groups of stakeholders. For instance, if an issue demands further input from the community, the level of participation changes to inform a new set of engagement needs.

How can online engagement projects design and deliver effective online conversations?

Designing a successful online consultation is, in essence, enabling a vibrant and productive conversation. The media-rich capabilities of a digital platform can promise exciting ways for participants to bring their views to the table. Some fundamentals remain unchanged and demand the same overarching commitment to the objectives of the consultation as traditional offline methods. On other fronts, there are new questions to be considered. Ultimately, the goal is to create an online dialogue and engagement space where participants can unlock the democratic potential of community participation.

Connecting government to community

Online community engagement is a crucial opportunity for government organizations to connect with community, to build and sustain vital conversations and relationships. Bang the Table’s comprehensive EngagementHQ platform and strategic guidance combines technical expertise and practice knowledge tailored to the specific needs of government organizations. Founded and led by community engagement professionals with years of experience in and around government, Bang the Table provides strategic planning and support in combination with an effective software platform.

Generalist tools or add-ons to government platforms lack the capabilities and focus to address the needs of government organizations. Technical capabilities aside, online engagement also demands a commitment to good design and practice, and a clear idea of what the public can expect and how this is to be achieved. To this end, the IAP2’s Public Participation Spectrum is a valuable framework for outlining the public’s role or extent of influence in a process or decision.

About Casey Earp

Casey Earp joined the Bang the Table team with a wealth of experience at the Federal, State and Local government levels. In his roles, Casey has led and been involved with community-wide engagement initiatives for a number of projects.

A Colorado native, Casey holds a Master of Political Science in Public Policy from the University of Colorado, Denver. His four years working in city management have given him first-hand insight into the challenges staff members face when running community engagement projects.