Why does community engagement matter for cities and governments?
The nature of community engagement is to provide community members with opportunities to help guide the decision-making processes that shape the future of their neighbourhood, town, or city. You may understand community engagement as in-person connection at town halls, or as one-way reporting to provide updates on upcoming city changes or plans. While this concept used to be solely restricted to in-person activities, the nature of community engagement has shifted over recent years—it can take place in person or online or can be a one-time event or 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. To ensure everyone is involved, accessibility of community engagement practices needs to be a high-level priority for key decision-makers.
Democracy means everyone
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 access to participation across a wide variety of platforms, such as digital engagement tools, in-person meetings, take-away/distributable surveys, and mobile ideation or feedback-gathering platforms?
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 democratic processes where community members can speak into and influence the decisions their community leaders are making. By considering these core areas above, you’re taking an important step towards creating meaningful engagement.
Community engagement needs to be a conversation
Allowing community members to provide feedback to major changes or decisions is helpful, but making the effort to create spaces for conversation fosters trust and demonstrates empathy. Including a diverse range of voices during decision-making processes provides opportunities for marginalized community members to share their important perspectives and enables a sense of empowerment—when overlooked voices are heard, these individuals can influence decisions that will directly affect their wellbeing and daily lives.
Rather than policymakers delivering news in a one-way formula—where there is no room for conversation or feedback—key decision-makers must encourage participation from the communities they are directly dealing with. Two-way streams of communication, conversation, idea-sharing, and feedback, gives policymakers the chance to make informed, sustainable decisions.
By considering and including the needs of all community stakeholders, decisions may be more widely accepted by communities, creating a more connected, trusting, and sustainable community. When diverse voices are included in important conversations, it helps to create a more inclusive environment for all—and results in decisions that truly benefit each community member.
Representation and access are key
The types of people making decisions for cities and communities 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?
As mentioned above, inclusive processes mean that every voice, especially those who are marginalized, are given the chance to be heard and are considered during decision-making activities. Access, by definition, is the means of approaching or entering a place. A literal translation of access can be understood as sidewalks that have lowered curbs for wheelchair access or including elevators in building plans. Access in the world of community engagement also needs to include access to digital services, information, or tools that are being used.
When it comes to the relationship between policymakers and community members, access can be understood as including the community in conversations and using a diverse range of tools for communicating with the communities in question.
Listening creates connection
Your community can speak to what they need, can show you what you don’t know, and can help make holistically meaningful decisions that better your space, city, organization, or community—you just need to give them the opportunity to do so. We are now living in the digital era—gone are the days of town hall meetings as the only source of community engagement. If COVID-19 taught us one thing, perhaps it’s understanding that digital engagement tools are key to maintaining empathic communication with our communities.
It’s important now more than ever to consider innovative digital tools that bridge the gap between policymakers and the communities they influence. 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.