There are a lot of participation methods to choose from once you decide to run a community engagement initiative. Ranging from in-depth offline deliberation to direct online voting, it can be overwhelming to decide which method to begin with. 

In online (or digital) participation, there are six common methods and you should be prepared to use several so that you can tailor the participation method for the varying needs of each project you’ll launch.

How to decide which engagement method is best 

Once you’ve decided to engage your community, you’ll need to identify what type of input you’ll be asking for. Some of the questions you need to answer internally include: 

  • Is there a specific plan we want to receive input on? 
  • How much influence can we give the community? 
  • Are we open to new ideas, or do we just want feedback on an existing idea? 
  • Is a budget available to implement suggestions? 
  • Do we want community members to engage with each others’ input?

Once you’ve internally identified the answers to those questions for each project you plan to launch, you’re ready to pick a participation method. 

6 commonly used engagement methods

So, what are these elusive community engagement methods? Actually, they’re quite clear! The 6 most commonly used engagement methods are:

  • ​​Polling: Give participants one clear question with pre-filled answers as options.
  • Scenario testing: Provide participants with multiple policy plans to choose from, explaining the pros and cons per proposal, and allow debate. 
  • Surveys: Offer questionnaires for participants to fill out so they can provide deeper insights into their choices and reasoning.
  • Participatory budgeting: Allow participants to allocate (part of) a public budget to selected projects.
  • Idea collection: Ask participants to share ideas within a defined policy area, or as a solution to a specific policy question.
  • Proposals: Offer participants the opportunity to share ideas on any topic, at any time, and consider them (at a city council meeting, for instance) after a threshold of votes has been reached.

Choosing the right community engagement method for you

These methods don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Participatory budgeting, for instance, often starts with an ideation phase that allows community members and stakeholders to share suggestions for ideas and plans that could receive funding. 

When The City of Oudenaarde, in Belgium, launched their participation platform they consulted the community several times via a variety of surveys on mobility, community development, and culture. The local government also asked residents to share ideas on improvements to the city, which led to 238 ideas, 426 comments, and 3,027 votes.

“We always consider which participation method is appropriate in consultation with the involved department or any external partners. An important starting point is the degree of input that is still possible. It makes a big difference if there’s still room for new ideas or whether clear boundaries have already been set. In the case of participation for a new mobility plan, we went with a survey. At that stage the partner we were working with needed insights on concrete bottlenecks; this method would enable us to define and structure the input more clearly.”

Jelle Didier, communications officer of the city Oudenaarde

Each community engagement method has its own advantages and disadvantages. We wrote an elaborate guide on the pros and cons per method, outlining the specific situations in which each could be suitable. We even illustrated them via real-life case studies! You can download the guide on 6 methods of online consultation for free.

Learn more best practices and guidelines for community engagement: