Why does community engagement matter for cities and governments?
At its center, community engagement means involving residents in decision-making processes that affect their lives in the places they live. You may think of community engagement as face-to-face outreach at city halls or reports about upcoming changes in the city. The nature of resident participation has changed in recent years. It can be in-person or online, a one-time event or an ongoing activity.
It’s important to involve community members in the choices that their cities and governments make. It helps to better understand the needs and desires of each community. Accessible community engagement must be a priority for decision makers.
Democracy means everyone
Furthermore, accessibility is, at its heart, a simple concept, but can have complex considerations and deep levels of impact. In simplistic terms, accessibility describes the quality of something being easy to understand, obtain, and use. Yet, ensuring everyone has access to something involves complex solutions. Community engagement activities need to account for several key things, such as:
Platform – Is there an opportunity to participate through a variety of digital participation tools, in-person meetings, and take-home/distribution surveys for brainstorming or collecting feedback?
Environment – What are key considerations that may affect someone’s ability to participate?
Disabilities – Are your platforms accessible to every person who needs them? Digital accessibility is just as important as physical accessibility. For example, your town hall has a wheelchair ramp built-in to allow everyone access to the inside of the building. Does the city’s website provide tools to aid those who may be hearing impaired or blind?
Inclusive community engagement directly affects the wellbeing of communities as a whole. It’s important to create processes where community members can have their say and influence the decisions that community leaders make. By considering these core areas above, you’re taking an important step towards creating meaningful engagement.
Community engagement needs to be a conversation
Further, allowing community members to speak up about major changes or decisions is helpful, but making the effort to create a space for conversation fosters trust and demonstrates empathy. Including a variety of voices in the decision-making process empowers marginalized community members with the opportunity to share their views.
Policymakers often deliver messages in a one-way fashion leaves no room for conversation or feedback. Instead, they need to encourage participation from the communities they serve. Two-way streams of communication, conversation, idea-sharing, and feedback, gives policymakers the chance to make informed, sustainable decisions.
Moreover, when the needs of all community stakeholders are included, decisions can be better accepted by communities, leading to greater trust. Including diverse voices in the conversation promotes inclusivity for all and leads to decisions that benefit all members of the community.
Representation and access are key
The people who make policy decisions often don’t represent or understand marginalized communities and their perspectives—but they should. Community engagement should involve all members or representatives thereof. But what do representation and access look like in policy-making environments?
Access, by definition, is the means of approaching or entering a place. Access can be understood as sidewalks that have lowered curbs for wheelchair access or including elevators in building plans. Digital services, information, and tools are ways to make community engagement more accessible to all.
When it comes to the relationship between policymakers and community members, access means engaging the community in conversations and using a wide range of tools to communicate with those communities.
Listening creates connection
Your community can tell you what it needs, can show you what you don’t know, and can help make holistically meaningful decisions that improve your space, city, organization, or community – you just have to give them the opportunity. We now live in the digital age. Gone are the days when town meetings were the only source of community engagement. If Covid-19 has taught us anything, it may be the realization that digital participation tools are key to maintaining empathetic communication with our communities.
Now more than ever, innovative digital tools can bridge the gap between policymakers and the communities they serve. And the good news is, these digital tools for community engagement already exist. Digital engagement tools include items like:
- Idea Boards: dynamic, forum-style platforms that provide a public digital space for community members to share their thoughts, ideas, perspectives, and feedback. Idea board tools provide up-vote and down-vote features to allow participants to ‘vote’ on ideas they resonate with or feel may share, or not share, important value.
- Comment Threads: sharing context and gathering feedback is part of the process, but so is commentary and discussion. Digital engagements offer commenting functionality that should be AI moderated, so that participants can engage openly and safely, without requiring a constant human presence.
- Satisfaction Surveys: Alongside targeted, specific digital conversations, satisfaction surveys focus on understanding citizens’ opinions towards local issues, quality of life, municipal services and community priorities. By having widespread input from citizens you are able to better understand needs and perceptions as well as identify areas for improvement.
- Project Phases, Updates, & Important Dates: the context provided alongside engagements is key for creating transparency for citizens to understand project phases as they happen, and in creating a place to learn any relevant community updates and important dates. Rather than being left in the dark, providing this information publicly promotes trust and clarity.