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6 Guiding Questions for Online Engagement from CM

On one of their recent capacity building calls, our friends at CommunityMatters – a partnership in which NCDD is a member – had a great discussion about online engagement. They distilled a list of key questions to help people think about and plan for online engagement that are incredibly useful. We encourage you to read more about them below or find the original CM blog post by clicking here.


CM_logo-200pxDigital engagement is the latest buzz when it comes to public participation. We hear about the great work of Code for America. We read articles claiming digital engagement is the “new normal.” Our brains spin trying to keep up with new tools and terms—Gov 2.0, civic technology, hackathons, digital citizenship. The list goes on.

Pete Peterson, executive director, Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership and Alissa Black, investment partner, Omidyar Network work with local governments to improve public engagement efforts. They know that despite the buzz, many cities and towns are hesitant to try more than a website or social media.

Pete and Alissa joined CommunityMatters to share ideas on getting started and going deeper with online public engagement. If your town is thinking about diving into the digital realm, consider these six questions.

Why engage the public? Nail down your goals for public participation before selecting a tool. Want to inform the public about a recent policy decision? A well-designed website will do the trick. Looking to collect ideas for a community plan? Consider an idea aggregation tool like Mindmixer or Neighborland. Public Pathways: A Guide to Online Engagement Tools for Local Governments presents a framework for categorizing and selecting online tools based on four engagement goals: inform, consult, collaborate and empower.

What kind of traffic visits the government website? Your municipal website is the natural place to host an online conversation. But, how many people regularly visit the site? What audience does it attract? Santa Monica, California (pop. 91,812) wanted input on its budget and general plan and took a hard look at web traffic. But the municipal site wasn’t garnering much visitation. The city partnered to host online engagement platforms on the local newspaper’s website to maximize participation and reach new audiences.

What is the outreach plan? It’s a no-brainer that you need to spread the word about face-to-face meetings. Online public engagement is no different. The latest and greatest technology isn’t enough to attract users—you still need to actively recruit participants. Trying to connect with a particular audience? Reach out to hyperlocal blogs or ethnic newspapers. Looking for intergenerational conversations? Steven Clift of e-Democracy.org recommends a mix of email and web-based technology.

How are we engaging people offline? Online public engagement is about complementing—not replacing—offline engagement. With Engage Oakland in Oakland, California (pop. 400,740), organizers encouraged public meeting attendees to share feedback online. Creating space for parallel online and offline conversations reinforced the whole process—online discussions motivated people to attend face-to-face meetings and kept those already involved at the table. The online space also allowed residents to stay in the loop without attending a meeting.

Are these the conversations we’re looking for? Take a look at examples from other cities and towns (our call notes are a great place to start!). Research the types of questions asked and issues addressed. You’re off to a good start if examples reflect what your town is looking to accomplish.

Y’all ready for this? Dust off that Jock Jams cassette and gather your posse. Online engagement is far from a contact sport, but you still need a strong team. What does readiness look like when it comes to digital public engagement? Here are a few essentials: dedicated staff to ensure government is responsive to online conversations; a marketing and outreach strategy to attract participants;committed resources for the project (and ideally, for sustaining online engagement long-term). Most of all, a willingness to dive in and try something new!

Read through the call notes and listen to the recording for more stories and insight on digital engagement from Pete, Alissa and our call participants.

You can find the original version of this post by Caitlyn Horose on the CommunityMatters blog at www.communitymatters.org/blog/key-questions-ask-successful-online-public-engagement.

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Roshan Bliss
An inclusiveness trainer and group process facilitator, Roshan Bliss serves as NCDD's Youth Engagement Coordinator and Blog Curator. Combining his belief that decisions are better when everyone is involved with his passion for empowering young people, his work focuses on increasing the involvement of youth and students in public conversations.

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