2020 was a year of accelerated lessons. At the very moment that municipalities needed to make their residents feel involved and informed, social distancing measures made it harder than ever to reach them. Luckily, a willingness to evolve, adapt, and experiment with new digital engagement alternatives meant that communities continued to have the opportunity to weigh in on critical issues like police reform, climate action plans, and municipal budgeting.
We learned that it’s not only possible for public engagement to go digital, but that it can actually begin to address some of the challenges that in-person engagements have always faced.
Clearly, digital engagement is here to stay, and the expectation of a high-quality online experience is rising among both local government staff and residents.
From the guests at our latest eDemocracy Webinar, here are the biggest takeaways that city officials and engagement experts are bringing forward into 2021.
Key takeaways and lessons to bring into 2021
- Find new ways to cut through the noise. With the ever-increasing flood of news and digital ephemera, it won’t get any easier for local governments to get their messages seen and heard. One strategy with great success is to find community mobilizers and influencers who can cut through the noise and activate their communities for you. Learn more: 6 Tips to Reach Beyond The Usual Suspects in Your Public Engagement.
- This is the time to invest in more inclusive, transparent, and engaging online consultation processes. Digital engagement broadens the scope of your audience, but only if you use it to its full potential. Many local governments saw record-high participation numbers, but posting a recording of a meeting without the opportunity to comment won’t cut it anymore - now that more people can easily join in, they’re eager to have their say and see the impact.
- Continue to try new things and allow space for experimentation, even if that means failing. What else can you add to your toolbox? What are colleagues in other municipalities trying? Two-way communication that allows for feedback will help you see very quickly what is and isn’t working for the community.
- Public engagement is still too focused on policy response. 2020 saw some emerging efforts to engage the public as a resource for solving larger public action problems, but it still falls far short of the capacity that could be engaged. Read: Democracy in a Time of Social Distancing.
- This trend towards deliberative democracy means that in-person engagement will continue to be important. Though digital engagement is evolving and necessary right now, that doesn’t mean we can forego developing deeper, more participatory in-person engagement processes like Citizens’ Assemblies.
- A hybrid online-offline engagement model could be the key to solving persistent accessibility challenges. As 2021 starts off, reflect on what worked best about online engagement, what aspects of in-person meetings were most missed, and what barriers come with either method. For example, the digital divide continues to be an issue in North America, while in-person engagement could be made more accessible with services like on-sight child-care and translations. Read: Why Are Some People Left Out of Digital Democracy?
- Remember that engagement isn’t just a top-down process. While internal engagement among city staff will always be essential, we're in a time where community members have better access to their state/provincial and federal elected officials than ever before. Gathering feedback directly from the public will be invaluable, especially if updates about COVID are to be disseminated rapidly and accurately.
With the growing global polarization and increasing wariness of governments, the need for well-functioning democracy is higher than ever before. In 2021, let’s ride the wave and build back our communities even better with high-quality, accessible online and offline public engagement.
Want to start 2021 on the right foot with exceptional community engagement? Ethelo can provide the online tools and engagement expertise you need to help build a more resilient and connected community.
Learn more about the Ethelo platform or reach out below to schedule a free 1-on-1 consultation with our team of engagement experts.