7 Public Engagement Lessons from the Pandemic

Cover image showing a video call on a laptop

The past two years have changed how local governments engage with their residents. From virtual open houses to online and hybrid engagement, we’ve all had to adapt to the "new reality".

Our recent Community Engagement Opportunities in 2022 webinar brought together community engagement experts to reflect on what they have learned (and unlearned) over the past two years, and what still remains to be figured out.

What we've learned so far

1. We can get more (and more diverse) participants with online events

Online events and engagements have not only made it possible for a larger number of people to attend, but to also have a more diverse crowd. Going digital has made it easier for traditionally excluded groups – especially those from Indigenous and remote communities – to participate in decision-making forums.

“More Indigenous peoples are engaged in more things now than we’ve ever seen,” said Rose LeMay, CEO of the Indigenous Reconciliation Group. For example, whereas it would have cost tens of thousands of dollars to get Inuit from communities across northern Canada together in the same room, they can now gather virtually for almost no cost.

And as the types of people participating in engagements changes, so has the decision-making.

“Now we have lots of people who are able to engage who are learning how to do so, but are also pushing all of us to do things differently,” LeMay said.

2. Our ability to directly engage with senior decision-makers is much higher

It’s also now possible to involve people from different parts of the world who previously would have been too far away to attend – without all the transportation costs and emissions.

When the pandemic hit, Am Johal, Director of SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement, was no longer able to interview guests in-person for the Office’s podcast. “All of a sudden, we were interviewing people from halfway around the world,” Johal said.

Digital events have also made it easier to connect more senior levels of decision-makers, such as federal ministers, with marginalized communities and lower levels of government. 

Marnie McGregor,  Global Urban Affairs Advisor for the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy, has also found this to be the case at the international level. Going virtual has helped to level the playing field and provide access to decision-making forums that some may not have had before, especially with ongoing travel restrictions and vaccine equity issues.

3. Being confronted with the truth has demonstrated the need for action

2021 saw extreme weather events around the world and the discovery of unmarked graves at residential schools, which created powerful public momentum for climate action and Indigenous reconciliation.

“When the first communities started to search residential schools for lost children is when the conversation changed,” said Le May. “It is more difficult now to ignore the truth of genocide against First Nations, Inuit and Métis in this country.”

What we need to improve in 2022

1. Hybrid events are here to stay

As in-person events start back up again, there’s still an expectation going forward that there will be an online component. While this can ensure events stay accessible, it also has impacts on event attendance and complexity.

“Once you announce that the event is available online, you immediately lose half of your in-person audience,” Johal observed.

Hybrid events also often require additional staff, time and resources to do well.

“It might actually take twice as much time to ensure that people on both mediums have the information they need in order to engage,” LeMay said.

However, one idea was to conduct fewer, but higher quality, engagements.

2. Internet access needs to be more equitable

While the internet has made it possible for people to stay connected and engaged during the pandemic, good internet access is not universal. Many in rural and remote areas still do not have adequate or reliable broadband service.

In so many ways, technology’s opened up a form of accessibility,” said Johal. “But being able to access it, and who gets to access it, remains an accessibility question.”

3. There isn’t enough sense-making in the digital realm

Technology has also accelerated the amount of change and information people have to deal with, and panelists agreed there isn’t enough collective sense-making – through conversation, public dialogue, shared experience – to help people understand it all.

Instead, there’s been a fire hose of disinformation and misinformation that people have to wade through online, without trusted people or organizations to arbitrate as we do for the press. How can we communicate who and what is credible, while still ensuring public spaces online remain democratic?

It’s also no longer clear who people represent when they say they are speaking for others.

“How do we do consultation and engagement when we no longer have those preconceived structures of who speaks for who?” asked LeMay.

4. We need better standards for online discourse

Although the internet has made it easier to communicate with different kinds of people, we don’t seem to be talking and building relationships with people we disagree with. By missing out on personal connections with others, there’s been a loss of trust. Instead, we’ve seen an increase in toxic and hateful speech online, especially on social media platforms.

Therefore, there’s a need to set higher standards for public discourse online and find ways to navigate our differences in a more respectful manner. 

There are opportunities to reach across the aisle in a way that we’re thinking about a common future, including with those that we have differences with,” Johal said.

This may be an area where engagement practitioners can lead, by setting and enforcing clear rights and responsibilities for participating in virtual discussions.

For example, LeMay called for incorporating “Indigenous knowledges around how to do conversations well [and] how to be with each other” into digital engagements to help ground participants.

You can find even more tips and valuable info in the recording of our Community Engagement Opportunities in 2022 webinar, along with further resources.

February 16th, 2022 | | 0 Comments