Community engagement plays a critical role in government decision-making by ensuring that the perspectives and needs of the community are taken into account. By involving community members in the decision-making process, government officials can make more informed decisions that better reflect the needs of their constituents.
However, despite its importance, community engagement can also present a number of challenges. Effective community engagement requires open lines of communication, and the ability to effectively receive, process, and respond to community feedback. This is easier said than done, particularly in communities with significant socio-economic, cultural, or linguistic diversity.
Moreover, traditional methods of community engagement, such as public meetings, may not be effective in reaching all members of the community, particularly those who are marginalized or underrepresented. For example, a meeting held during work hours may not be accessible to low-income workers who cannot take time off from their jobs. Similarly, many meeting locations are inaccessible by public transportation, or to elderly or disabled community members.
Fortunately, newer technologies have the potential to address these challenges with innovative ways to engage with the community. Technology makes it easier to collect and manage community feedback. By leveraging technology, government officials can enhance the effectiveness of their community engagement efforts, and ultimately make better decisions that better reflect the needs of their constituents.
Steps for Establishing Better Communication to Engage with the Community
At least 1 in 3 Americans is dissatisfied with how things are going in their local community today. How much better would this be if more people felt their voices were being heard?
Strong communities require open lines of communication between government officials and citizens. Failing to do this well can lead to citizens feeling unheard and disconnected from their government, and government officials not being fully informed about the needs and perspectives of their constituents.
So how can you create better communication with your community members?
Provide clear and concise information to the public
Providing clear, concise, and easily accessible information about city services, policies, and initiatives can help establish open lines of communication with the community. This information can be made available on the city's website or dedicated online portal, or through other channels such as brochures, newsletters, and social media.
Create a system for the community to easily reach you
Government should be accessible to the public, not a black box they only hear about on local news updates. That’s why you need to establish a system for receiving and responding to feedback from the community.
While this can be done through a variety of traditional methods, such as surveys and town hall meetings, consider more modern methods, like an online portal. An online portal gives residents a central place to provide feedback, ask questions, and access information about government services and initiatives.
A web portal also offers the added benefit of convenience and accessibility, as residents can access it from anywhere at any time, without having to travel to a physical location. Plus it gives government leaders insight into the needs and perspectives of their communities, since it allows for real-time feedback and data collection, and a simple way to organize different types of communication, from feedback to service requests.
Proactively solicit community input
To truly understand the needs and perspectives of your community, you of course need to ask.
By actively seeking out and listening to the voices of your community, you can gain valuable insights into their priorities and concerns, and make more informed decisions that better reflect their needs.
For example, say your city government wants to improve your public transportation system. By holding town hall meetings and conducting online surveys, you can gather input from riders and non-riders alike. This gives you a better understanding of what changes would be most beneficial to the community — for instance, which areas are most in need of new bus routes. By being proactive in soliciting this input, the city government can make more informed decisions about its transportation system. In turn, this improves the overall experience for the city’s residents.
With omnichannel communication tools, you can use SMS, email, or notifications to easily request feedback from residents, which can provide valuable insights into the needs and perspectives of your community. With strong communication tools, you can reach a wider range of residents, including those who may not be able to attend town hall meetings or complete online surveys.
Create an organized system to collect and manage feedback
A great system should make it easy for residents to provide feedback, and for government officials to track, categorize, and respond to feedback in a timely manner, making sure communications don’t get lost or forgotten.
Increasingly, cities and counties are turning to Virtual City Halls to help with this. A Virtual City Hall (VCH) provides a centralized platform for government officials and citizens to communicate with each other, exchange information, and provide feedback.
By using a VCH, government officials can make all the other steps for establishing open lines of communication with the community easier. For example, a VCH can provide 24/7 access to information and services, automate feedback processes, and enhance the security of sensitive information.
Respond to feedback with transparency and urgency
Acknowledging all feedback, even if it is difficult to hear (or not particularly actionable), shows that the city government is taking the time to at least hear the perspectives of its residents. Regular updates on how feedback has influenced decision-making, and what actions have been taken, helps build trust and accountability between the government and the community.
When feedback is organized in a central system, such as with a Virtual City Hall, it becomes easier to respond promptly, ensuring that the community feels heard and valued.
Communicate decisions with clarity and candor
Clear and honest communication is key when it comes to sharing decisions with the community, as it helps to build trust and understanding. Be transparent about the reasoning behind decisions and how they were informed by community feedback.
Use clear and simple language, avoiding technical jargon, to ensure the information is easily understood by the community, regardless of education level or language barriers (ideally, you’re providing multilingual messaging already).
By communicating decisions with clarity and candor, the government demonstrates its commitment to being open and accountable to the community. It also gives you the chance to address the reasons why certain decisions weren’t made.
When discussing the decision behind a new park location for instance, it helps to explain not just the benefits (e.g. proximity to schools or public transport), but also why another location wouldn’t work (e.g. zoning regulations or lack of sufficient land).
Continuously monitor and improve your community engagement efforts
Make sure you measure your community engagement efforts. Regularly assessing the effectiveness of your community engagement initiatives and making necessary adjustments helps to ensure that you are meeting the needs and perspectives of the community.
For example, if you find that residents aren't responding to your surveys as much as you would like, you may want to consider hosting more town hall meetings or creating an online forum for residents to provide feedback — or perhaps directing more residents to your online portal.
By making community engagement a priority and being proactive about monitoring and improving your efforts, you can create a more open, responsive, and accountable government.
Leveraging community engagement for policy development
By actively seeking out and gathering feedback from the community in these ways, governments can gain a deeper understanding of the needs, priorities, and perspectives of their constituents. With access to more accurate and complete information, you have the data to better inform policy decisions, ensuring that they are better aligned with the needs of the community.
For example, if your analytics tools discover your community is consistently concerned about traffic safety, your city can use this feedback to inform the development of traffic safety policies, such as the installation of new crosswalks or traffic signals.
A better way to engage with the community
From 24/7 accessibility to residents and simplified communications, to an easier way to manage requests and take the repetitive work out of your department’s day-to-day work, Virtual City Hall facilitate more effective engagement between governments and local residents
A Virtual City Hall can also provide advanced reporting tools to track and monitor your efforts, from community engagement to the progress of new projects — making it easier to make the decisions that will have the best impact on the neighborhoods you represent.
Curious how you might use a Virtual City Hall for your own community engagement? Read about how Pico Rivera implemented a Virtual City Hall to address some of their biggest challenges, in this case study.