At CitizenLab, we believe that a combination of synchronous and asynchronous participation opportunities make for the most qualitative processes. Before Covid shook the world, these synchronous opportunities were mostly happening offline.
Public engagement sessions, town halls, focus groups, and citizens’ panels were almost entirely organized as in-person events. However, the past year has shown that we can – and should – reconsider.
How tech has enhanced workshops
In response to the pandemic’s first lockdown and social distancing measures, we developed our online workshops method: a tool to host in-depth, live discussions online. Going up the community engagement ladder from simple polls to more constructive dialogue – including interactive elements like voting and idea-collection in real-time – means you’ll be able to build relationships and trust with your community members virtually.
While these workshops shouldn’t replace all in-person discussions, they make it possible to have more frequent discussions that are open to those who might traditionally be excluded from in-person events, such as working parents. It also means you’ll be able to reach more people, and make better, data-driven decisions.
What we’ve learned so far
500+ workshops later, we’ve learned a lot about how to run good – and bad – online participation meetings. Some takeaways include:
- 87% of workshops aim to reach shared solution recommendations. The other 13% focus on better identifying community needs.
- 70% of workshops are part of a larger participation process, meaning that there have, and will be, other participation phases and opportunities to engage on the same topic.
- 36% of workshops have discussed mobility. Since CitizenLab mostly collaborates with local governments, it’s no surprise that this is the most popular field of interest for residents. Spatial planning and climate share the spotlight as the second most popular topic.
- Diamond and Information Sharing workshop types (see more on these below) make up 80% of our workshops. Polls and interactive learning sessions have also been hosted using the workshops tool.
What does this mean for you?
Curious how workshops can support your own community engagement initiatives? Here are the four main workshop types that have been implemented on our platform, and what they’ve been able to achieve.
1. Brainstorming and identifying solutions
An online workshop is the ideal format to get different people around the table and deliberate on a (set of) topic(s). The Diamond model for workshop guides a workshop discussion to a shared conclusion. This generally happens in 3 steps:
- First, participants come up with ideas or choices for a solution.
- Next, all participants evaluate the proposed solutions by voting on them.
- Finally, they discuss the top choices and reach a conclusion on the next steps together.
Example: The City of Hillerod (Denmark) engaged its residents on a redevelopment project. First, they introduced the plans and invited residents to give input. Then, they responded to what residents were saying. As you can in the screenshot below, the workshop was well structured – broken down into 7 phases so everyone clearly understood what to expect, and when. This transparency decreases the risk of having one participant hijack the meeting with just their opinion, and helps maintain flow in the process.
2. Information sharing
The first step on the participation ladder, and a prerequisite for qualitative participation, is good information sharing. Everyone needs to understand what the participation process is about before they can engage. This is especially important for groups of residents who are often left out of participation processes, including youth.
Example: INJUV, Chile’s national institute for youth, has been running its Creamos Program for a few years now. The Creamos Program is aimed at young people between the ages of 15 and 29 who are motivated to create small or medium-scale changes by proposing innovative ideas for problems that affect a community. They’ve used our online workshops tool to inform their youth participants on how to fill out an application and scale their solution. Thanks to the use of custom break-out rooms, they have been able to engage more than 300 participants at the same time.
3. Fine-tuning ideas using polls
Often, a Diamond process (as described above) is spread over a few participation sessions and phases. However, sometimes you need to get a quick sense of what your community is thinking, need to make a decision, or want to make your workshop more interactive – using polls comes in handy in these cases. While polls can be used for efficient decision-making, it’s important to remember that they are best implemented as part of a larger participation process so as to allow for more interaction at other levels.
Example: The City of Zottegem (Belgium) has been consulting its residents on a new mobility plan. They organized a few workshops to identify bottlenecks and opportunities. Our workshop structure enabled them to split their mobility plan into subtopics, such as biking, with polls on questions related to the previously identified gaps. By using polls at this stage, they were able to collect useful data to further develop points in their plan.
4. Interactive learning
The workshop tool can also be used to teach new skills or further explain a complicated concept to various types of stakeholders. This interactive style, with several opportunities to engage your audience, helps meet people where they are in terms of learning style – whether they prefer to listen in, participate in discussions, or provide written contributions.
Example: The City of Dongen (NL) organized an internal workshop on ‘Data Day Income’ to increase internal awareness and knowledge of the city’s financial situation. They even included little quizzes to keep everyone engaged.
Next-level community engagement
We know that one-style-fits-all engagement doesn’t exist. In fact, the most robust community engagement projects offer multiple opportunities, and styles, for participation. Virtual workshops help address this need by enabling live, interactive, and intimate conversations on the topics that matter most to your city and your residents. The future of community engagement has moved away from only being able to deliberate at in-person meetings, and tools like our workshops function now enable you to meet your residents where they are.