What is Community Engagement?

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What is community engagement?

Community engagement is a strategic approach to getting residents, community groups, and stakeholders involved in a city’s planning and prioritization processes. There is a wide spectrum of activities that can be effective for community engagement ranging from collecting passive input, to empowering individuals to spearhead local government projects and initiatives. 

Why is community engagement important for local governments?

Community engagement is important on so many levels, but first and foremost, good community engagement results in positive outcomes both for local government organizations and for the communities they serve. 

Community engagement increases:

  • Trust between government and residents
  • Inclusive governance that takes into account the needs of all community groups
  • Budgeting efficiency and prioritization
  • Partnerships with community leaders and organizations
  • Communication through official channels to lessen misinformation and miscommunications

What are the benefits of community engagement?

The benefits of community engagement can be distilled into one bottom line: the value of resident input. Community engagement is a way to gather community input in order to better understand resident needs and priorities – and ideally in doing so, to get people more invested in their communities – whether it’s on the neighborhood, city, county, or community-group level. 

Ultimately, local governments function to serve their residents.  It is more difficult, as well as less efficient, to serve residents without opening some type of feedback loop with the community. At the base level, community engagement can help governments operate more effectively and more efficiently by giving them the feedback information they need to power decision-making. 

Additionally, community engagement can help increase trust and transparency – creating communication lines and showing residents that they are heard. Community engagement also helps with community building. Depending on where in the spectrum a community engagement initiative falls, community engagement practices can include collaborations with local groups, NGOs, community leaders, and more – and can transform residents into more active (and ‘engaged’) citizens.

What’s the difference between community engagement and civic engagement?

These two terms are largely interchangeable and in practice, many government organizations use either or both terms to refer to the same value and types of initiatives. However, community engagement can also be used outside of the context of local government for other non-private sector initiatives that somehow encourage community members into actively participating in community life.  

Top 5 community engagement best practices:

  1. Use core principles of equity, diversity, and inclusion
  2. Gather input 
  3. Be transparent
  4. Measure success
  5. Communicate your achievements

Read the Zencity guide on best practices to proactive governance 

Community engagement methods: from classic methods to today

Town hall meetings have been part of the fabric of American democracy since the country’s founding. But since 1776, community engagement has come a long way. Methods for engaging with the community range from classic civic participation tools like surveys, to “deeper” community programs, such as Imagine Austin in Austin, TX.  

  1. Surveys: Surveys have come a long way over the past fifty+ years when they were first popularized. Surveys are a great tool for honing in on specific topics by asking about a very narrow priority issue for the city or county, and for gauging general satisfaction in the community. A general trend has been to embrace the online presence of Americans and leverage social media to distribute and run online surveys. 
  2. Community engagement centers: Meeting residents where they are is usually a phrase connected with using social media for community engagement. In Boston, MA, the City literally meets their different communities — both cultural and geographic. They have opened neighborhood services offices to share information, assist residents with city services, and keep their finger on the pulse of current events. Other cities, such as Rochester, NY, Seattle, and Miami have similar programs.  
  3. Town hall meetings: Whether it’s a council meeting or an open hearing, bringing people together, in person or virtually now that many local governments have adapted to a pandemic-influenced world, has been one of the most traditional ways to hear resident feedback and opinions. With meetings moving online, the amount of people who attend has risen and many cities are going to make hybrid meetings standard to encourage continued participation. 
  4. Leveraging online discourse: People are talking about their cities and counties outside of “official” meetings. Those discussions are taking place online. Platforms, such as Zencity, can gather open source data and help cities, counties and communities to understand the conversation happening online. This information helps cities, counties and communities make more inclusive and equitable decisions because the voices come from a much wider segment of the community, not just the STP (same ten people). 

What makes for effective community engagement?

One thing is certain, as civic participation declines, local governments must innovate to effectively engage with their community. Luckily, technology is a good, effective community engagement tool. 

4 ways technology is innovating community engagement for local governments

  1. Bringing community surveys online: A general engagement trend across communities of all sizes has been to embrace the online presence of Americans and leverage social media to distribute and run online surveys. Did you know 98% of Americans between the ages of 30-49 are online? With today’s technology, online surveys can be both representative and statistically valid (note these are not necessarily the same thing and inclusive engagement means representative engagement!) Online community surveys also have the advantage of timeliness – good online survey technology can allow for real-time results which is a tremendous advantage over traditional, paper surveys or phone surveys – which require much more manual work and analysis. 
  2. Making community feedback accessible and understandable using AI:  AI has already revolutionized many industries to help people make informed decisions from all the data generated daily, by each of us. Local government should be no different. AI works with anonymous data, corralling it together into trends, hot topics and general community feedback. Community engagement becomes fueled by a better understanding of what the community actually wants when AI helps local governments process and make sense of large amounts of feedback data – also transforming anecdotal data into quantitative data.
  3. Automating services to help local governments be agile and prepared: Many times, residents can get stuck in a voicemail loop just to make one small change. What if residents could make that small change themselves or have a chatbot lead them through the process? This lessens the load on government workers and allows them to spend more time on pressing issues that need their attention. They now have the agility to respond to real-time resident feedback and follow trending topics, along with emerging needs. 
  4. Digitizing communication so local governments can provide faster and more efficient services: The ability to share thoughts, feedback and opinions through digital channels has opened up cities and counties to community engagement like never before. Through chatbots, social media, and online forms, residents can share opinions on local initiatives, easily navigate simple requests, and report problems directly. One great example of this is taking place in the 311 space.

Great examples of community engagement

Here are some of our favorite examples of community engagement. There are great community engagement programs all over the country but here are a few that standout.

  • Boston’s Neighborhood Services Office

The Neighborhood Services department is a cabinet-level community engagement project. Each Boston neighborhood has its own representative and there are representatives for different immigration and cultural communities. This is a great example of leveraging trusted community leaders for good engagement.

  • Imagine Austin

Austin, TX calls the public participation in ‘Imagine Austin’ the “lifeblood“ of the program. Through a series of community forums, Austin’s residents have helped to guide where the city is going in the future and how it gets there. 

  • NYC Engage 

New York City developed NYC Engage to create a way for residents to easily learn  about public meetings and to attend them virtually. The community engagement platform also enables all residents to attend meetings, post pictures and comments, and provide written feedback to the City. 

Zencity’s Community Insights & Analytics 

Zencity’s community insights & analytics civic engagement platform is built to power smart decisions. Zencity’s platform gathers organic and proactive feedback from all corners of your community, translating community feedback into actionable insights.

Take community engagement to the next level with Zencity. Book a demo with us

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