From costly expenses to loss of control, several misconceptions about community engagement can hinder local governments from unlocking the full potential of participatory democracy to this day. In this blog post, we’ll explore five of the most-heard myths and why they’re not true.
Many of the myths about community engagement stem from the days when engaging with residents was limited to in-person participation. However, community engagement has become more accessible, efficient, and valuable than ever, thanks to the rise of digital engagement platforms and more experience with both offline and online methods.
1. “Community engagement is expensive”
One of the most common myths about community engagement is that it requires a lot of investment, both in terms of external communications and in staff time needed to process and follow up on input collected.
While it’s true that traditional community engagement methods like hosting town hall meetings or relying exclusively on pen-and-paper idea boxes can be costly, the rise of online participation platforms has significantly reduced the cost per engaged individual or idea.
By adding online engagement tools and shifting some resources to digital participation, governments can reach more community members. Additionally, online engagement platforms allow for real-time processing of the feedback you collect, making the process more efficient and cost-effective.
Think an online engagement platform is too costly? It’s important to look beyond the price tag and look at the potential. Read this article to discover the added value of an online engagement platform.
2. “We’ll only hear from the same ten people”
Should participatory democracy be the privilege of a few? The answer clearly is “no”, but it’s a risk you take when community engagement is limited to city council and town hall meetings.
Fortunately, technology provides many opportunities to reach more residents and overcome their most critical problem: time constraints. In today’s fast-paced world, people have busy schedules and many demands on their time, from hobbies to taking care of kids or family members, making it difficult to participate in offline engagement opportunities that may require traveling to a specific location. By giving them the opportunity to participate anyplace anywhere with a digital engagement platform, you’ll be able to collect more diverse opinions and have more representative input to work with.
3. “We’ll be forced to implement the ideas we’ve collected”
Some elected officials believe that community engagement will lead to unbearable pressure to carry out the ideas community members propose. That certainly is not the case – it’s all about managing expectations by communicating clearly with the community about the decision-making process and which ideas you will implement.
By being transparent and honest about the limitations and challenges, residents are more likely to understand and support the decisions made.
4. “Community engagement initiatives only collect complaints”
The belief that residents mostly use online engagement tools to write complaints is one of the biggest myths that exist, fueled by negative experiences from social media.
As a matter of fact, most people adopt a constructive attitude on online engagement platforms. For local governments, it is also a way to keep the community in the loop about the decisions made and on what data they are based. Such transparency and data-driven decision-making reduce the number of complaints after a project ends.
5. “Our team isn’t large and skilled enough”
It is true that you need a certain level of resources to organize offline participation. . Now,by smartly combining offline venues with online engagement opportunities, you can maximize the return on your financial and time investment in community engagement.
You won’t need to spend days organizing in-person activities to reach only a fraction of your residents; digital engagement will help you engage more residents faster and cheaper. But this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t organize any offline engagement – you’ll be able to go out and meet groups that are usually harder to reach.
And what about the skillset? Surely you need someone with extensive data analysis skills to make sense of all the input you collected? Enter technology. CitizenLab’s platform, for example, will help you and your team accurately and efficiently spot those trends through visual keyword maps and easy-to-use dashboards to present data collected.
At CitizenLab, we also aim to make community engagement more accessible. For one, we gladly share tips and best practices here on our blog and in our comprehensive resources. On top of that, our Government Success Managers organize exclusive community sessions for our clients in which they bring together engagement professionals to discuss projects and foster peer learning.