When you think of community engagement, you may think of town halls, civic events, or community board meetings. These face-to-face venues are a vital part of any community engagement plan, helping to build public trust by keeping local government accessible and accountable to constituents.
But most residents interact with their city government only when they need something, like a permit or an application, to pay a fine, or to report an issue or make a service request. Creating positive relationships with the majority of citizens requires broadening the scope of community engagement to include service requests, licensing and permits, public information, and more, and making it as simple and satisfying as possible to accomplish these everyday municipal tasks.
Here’s a step-by-step guide to creating a truly holistic community engagement plan that reaches more citizens and reflects how local government actually fits into their lives. By expanding the definition of community engagement, local leaders can build stronger relationships with citizens and encourage deeper engagement in the future.
Step 1: Define Your Community Engagement Plan’s Goals
Any effective planning process begins with defining objectives.
Are there any particular pain points you’d like to eliminate for citizens, like long hold times, overly-complicated application processes, or limited payment options? If so, these are good places to start. Other goals may include reaching more citizens, increasing accessibility for diverse populations, streamlining the internal operations that empower engagement—whatever you deem most important and impactful for your community.
The best goals are specific and measurable, so get detailed. Instead of aiming for “quicker service request submissions,” for example, aim to make it possible for residents to submit a service request in one minute or less.
Once your goals are clearly defined, you can begin to create a roadmap for reaching them.
Step 2: Create a Budget for Your Plan
A solid community engagement plan is priceless — but it still has to fit within your budget.
Combining digital and non-digital engagement tools can help you get more for your money while reaching the maximum number of community members. For example, you may reach more residents and save money by hosting a single in-person meeting and streaming it, rather than hosting different meetings in neighborhoods across the city.
Designing community engagement strategies with cost recovery in mind can also help you maximize your budget. Consider what costs make sense to pass on to the public through a small fee, such as permit application fees. Then, make sure you have the right tools in place to support cost recovery while minimizing expenses in the first place.
Effective community engagement software helps cities streamline processes, improve the collection of fees and fines, and cut down on resource intensive, face-to-face transactions by offering more self-service options.
Step 3: Empower Engagement Through Self-Service
Any forward-looking community engagement plan should identify opportunities for self-service, which is only growing in popularity. A 2017 study found that 80 percent of consumers try to take care of issues themselves before reaching out for a live representative.
That preference spills over into the public sector, with many residents and businesses choosing to submit service requests, find information, make payments, and submit applications through mobile 311-like apps, web portals, or other channels.
Don’t let your city be left behind by neglecting this important step.
Step 4: Select the Right Channels for Your Community Engagement Plan
When people shop online, they hop seamlessly from one channel to the next. They might stick an item in their cart from a mobile app, then hit “buy” a few hours later on their desktop. Ecommerce companies work hard to create a frictionless, personalized experience for every customer, and residents expect their dealings with local government agencies to be just as easy.
As you find opportunities for self-service, you’ll have to select the channels to make those options available to residents. To reach the most diverse group of citizens, aim for a plan that includes a variety of communication channels, and focus on integration to make sure they all sync flawlessly. The right supporting software for your city’s community engagement plan will make integration automatic, helping you give every resident a frictionless, personalized experience.
Examples of Communication Channels
- Web Portals: Well-designed web portals make it easy for citizens to find everything they need, from a place to report a fallen tree, to web forms for a permit or license, to applications for submitting payments.
- Mobile Apps: An attractive, engaging mobile app allows citizens to request city services on-the-go, find information about upcoming events, check the status of a request made through another channel, and more.
- Email: Most people check their inboxes several times a day, and email remains an essential channel for any community engagement plan.
- Social Media: Many citizens are unlikely to call a hotline or spend time on a government website, but are very accessible on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.
- Chatbots: Using chatbots to answer frequently asked questions is a great way to make community engagement easier for residents and city employees alike.
- SMS: With the rise of spam calls, many people are reluctant to answer calls from unknown numbers. Putting out important information via text message can be a more effective and convenient way to reach these residents.
Step 5: Choose the Right Supporting Technology
Now that you’ve gone to all the trouble of creating a smart community engagement plan, you’re going to want to make sure the digital tools supporting it are up to the task.
Choosing a community engagement software platform with a good built-in Citizen Relationship Management system (CRM) automates follow-ups and workflows, keeps all relevant channels in the loop, and makes it easy to track every request. The improved efficiency that a good community engagement platform provides will help city workers process more requests in less time, without letting any residents slip through the cracks.
Step 6: Measure Your Success With Advanced Reporting and Analytics
With effective reporting and analytics tools, you’ll be able to see whether your community engagement plan is reaching its goals, or needs a little adjustment. Gain greater visibility into trends, like the number, type, and location of service requests over time. Check which channels are preferred, and direct resources where they’re needed. And gauge how well different departments are performing across a wide variety of metrics, then experiment to see which interventions are effective and which are not.
As you implement your plan, continue to check your progress and make adjustments as needed. By remaining creative, strategic, and flexible, you can develop a community engagement plan that’s tailor-made to fit your community’s needs.