Who said that community engagement initiatives had to stop during lockdown? Community consultation is now more essential than ever to help councils coordinate solidarity efforts, identify the needs of their residents, and crowdsource innovative ideas to support local businesses.

Traditional consultation platforms enable councils to carry out consultations remotely and to ensure a continuous dialogue with their residents. During the first lockdown, several cities used the digital tools at their disposal to increase community engagement. The French town of Rueil-Malmaison used its participation platform to share information with residents and help organise solidarity initiatives, distributing more than 30,000 masks and 6,000 free meals over the course of 2 months.

However, one of the main challenges councils face during lockdown is maintaining in-depth, synchronous dialogue with citizens. These conversations, that usually take place in offline townhall meetings, are part of the fabric of our local democracies. In order to bring these meetings online and ensure democratic continuity, CitizenLab has launched online citizen workshops – a feature allowing councils to organize online debates, combining video, voting, polls and idea gathering. The discussion can take place in plenary sessions and then in simultaneous small discussion groups, just as it would in an online workshop.

Why organize an online workshop?

The aim of online workshops is not to replace offline meetings. While these workshops bring great value at a time where in-person events are impossible, we believe they are also very relevant outside of lockdown. The combination of offline and online meetings brings the following:

  • Allows for greater diversity within participants by including citizens who cannot take part in the usual offline meetings due to a lack of time, long travel distances, accessibility issues…
  • Increases efficiency of the input processing by automating the input sentiment analysis or the topic clustering.
  • Saves money by cutting down the venue rental costs, catering costs, accommodation costs…

Launching an online workshop

Proper preparation is, by far, the most critical part of your workshop. Online sessions require serious planning: the better you prepare, the better the workshop! Here are the best practices we have identified working alongside councils to moderate online deliberations.

  • Clearly define the scope and objectives of the workshop. Also, take into account whether these objectives are obtainable in a workshop of 60-90 minutes. If not, better to split into several workshops or to make your scope more realistic.
  • Appoint one or more moderators. It is important to have a team member in charge of greeting participants, answering questions, and ensuring that discussions run smoothly.
  • Prepare a script in advance. It’s necessary to estimate beforehand how much time each step will take. Go through the timeline of your entire workshop and write down what you, as the facilitator, will say and do during each step. How you write this down will differ depending on your personal preferences: some prefer bullet points outlining key elements, while others prepare a literal transcription of their lines to feel confident.
  • Make sure all voices get heard. One of the great challenges of moderating online deliberation is making sure that all participants are heard. The discussion should be guided but not overly focused, giving everyone a chance to express themselves and bring energy to the session.

Ready to launch your own workshop?

We have written a practical guide for cities and civic engagement experts wishing to engage in online citizen deliberation. This guide contains the steps to follow to set up a digital workshop as well as tips for moderating online discussions.

If you are interested in setting up a digital workshop in your municipality, you can also contact our team.

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