A lot of things need to change for us to effectively undertake community engagement during the fight against COVID-19. But one important constant is the need to continue to enable citizens to have a say in decisions that impact their lives.

From talking with engagement practitioners and reading LinkedIn and Facebook posts I know people are struggling with a feeling of loss; not just the loss of their usual way of working but loss of the sense of community they get from working with people face-to-face.

Engagement practitioners have well developed skills in reading the room, empathetic listening and understanding body language. And whilst it is more difficult to read people in an online environment, these aren’t the only skills engagement practitioners use.  

Engagement practitioners support decision-makers to be clear about who they need to consult, and they design processes which meet the needs of different groups of citizens and stakeholders to maximise their involvement. The challenge now is to put those design skills to work in a new context. 

Time for new thinking about online engagement

Rarely does one tool meet every situation. Different online tools present different opportunities as well as limitations. In the same way as working from home gives us time to try out new recipes, the need to engage virtually gives us the opportunity to try out new approaches.

When designing online engagement here are two questions I think are essential to consider:  

  1. Which tools are right for this engagement process? You wouldn’t use the same tool or technique for every face-to-face process so why stick with one when you move online?
  2. What do I need to do to support people to participate using the tool/s I’ve chosen? Do I need to send out a simple written guide or a video guide or offer a ‘practice’ session for people who feel less confident online? 

I agree with Nancy White writing about virtual World Cafes when she says, let’s not “move our dysfunctional offline meetings into the online space. The bottom line is creating interactions that matter – online or off.” We shouldn’t simply replicate our face-to-face meetings online, let’s consider how to get the best out of the online space. The current environment is an opportunity to discover new ways and new tools and use the best tool or combination of tools for the job. 

From the perspective of citizens, engaging online can provide a better engagement experience than the traditional face-to-face approach – no travel and they can participate in their pjs. Moreover, in an online environment, facilitators can manage loud people more easily, younger people are more likely to participate, and introverts may find the experience less intimidating. 

Making sense of online engagement tools

Online engagement isn’t new; there are a multitude of online platforms that support governments to inform, consult and involve citizens and stakeholders. In Australia and New Zealand, Bang the Table’s YourSay sites, The Hive’s Participate sites and Social Pinpoint are three. Other platforms provide various ways to engage citizens where and when it suits them – have a look at DelibEthelocitizenlabYour PrioritiesZilinoPol.isOpenBudgets.eu, and Stanford PB to name but a few. There are numerous online tools which facilitators are already using, alone or in combination with face-to-face sessions, such as GroupMap and PollEverywhere.

Some online tools which can bring people together to share their ideas include scrumblr (I’ve set up one here about the challenge of moving community engagement online – feel free to add your ideas), IdeaBoardzIdeaflip, StormzKialo (again I’ve started a discussion here about moving community engagement online) and Lino. I know some people are using online collaborative workspaces, such as BaseCampMURALLoomio and Google Drive, to provide a more dynamic engagement. 

However, participation through most of these platforms mentioned above is asynchronous i.e. not existing or occurring at the same time. Often effective engagement isn’t possible unless you can bring people together in real-time. Video conferencing and webinars (GoToMeetingSkypeZoomWebinar NinjaGoogle Hangouts) can partially replicate face-to-face get togethers. Webinar software provides for breakout groups, screen sharing and interactive whiteboards.

Solutions for real time interactive engagement

For interactive real time engagement Synthetron is a great option.  Synthetron puts participants, from 10 to 1,000 people, into small overlapping virtual groups where they share their views and suggestions in response to a moderated script. Synthetron is timely and efficient, with ideas that gain traction in one group being immediately shared with other groups in real time. At the end of the discussion, because Synthetron is a text-based tool, a written report is produced setting out the ideas which achieved the most support from the participants.

Synthetron is also an egalitarian tool, with participation being anonymous, so people engage with the ideas not personalities and everyone has an equal chance of having their idea supported across the bigger group. You can also add pre- and post-questionnaires, run polls and show short videos and images during the discussion. Another positive feature of Synthetron is that they allow more people to be involved at the same time, often a challenge with face-to-face processes. 

I’m part of the Australian Facilitators’ Network and they are developing a Google doc listing various online options. If you aren’t already a member, you might like to join. IAP2 Australasia also has a COVID-19 page with various information to assist engagement practitioners. 

It can be tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail. 

[attributed to Abraham Maslow, amongst others]