3 Rookie Mistakes to Avoid in Online Citizen Engagement

From local governments to the private sector, organizations are increasingly recognizing the importance of online citizen engagement. Supplementing in-person forms of collecting public input (e.g. town hall meetings, public hearings) with online methods is crucial for reaching a more diverse audience and making the process more convenient for participants. (Not convinced? Read six reasons your organization should start doing online engagement.)

Now that you’ve decided to start consulting with the public online, how do you get the most out of the process? Here are three common mistakes to avoid:

1. Failing to define the scope of the engagement process

Sometimes, there will be aspects of the project that are non-negotiable. For example, a growing population will necessitate additional public transport infrastructure. The question of whether there should be additional infrastructure is not up for debate, but citizens might be asked about the type of infrastructure they wish to see, potential routes for transit services, and more.

Decision-makers need to be upfront with the public and manage their expectations about the extent to which their feedback can influence the final outcome. If these parameters are not clearly established at the start of the process, participants will be angry and disillusioned if they perceive that their feedback has not been taken into account. This “bait and switch” is likely to deter them from participating again in the future.

2. Neglecting your online consultation

Now that your online consultation has been launched, don’t just set it and forget it. Engage with participants, respond to their questions and comments in a timely fashion, and ask further questions if you’re curious about something that they’ve brought up. Just like a moderator in a debate, keep an eye on the conversation, bring the discussion back on track when it goes off-topic, and intervene when the need arises.

Not only does this keep people engaged on an ongoing basis, it also contributes to genuine and respectful dialogue between participants and decision-makers, as well as amongst participants.

3. Leaving participants hanging

You’ve collected plenty of useful feedback from participants — now what? There’s a common perception that citizen engagement is “just for show” and that citizens’ contributions will have little or no influence on the outcome. Unfortunately, most participants don’t hear from decision-makers following the public input process and this does little to assuage their concerns.

“Close the loop” by notifying participants about the final decision and letting them know how their feedback has influenced the final outcome. For participants, knowing that their feedback has made an impact is critical to making engagement meaningful and habit-forming. When people are able to see the tangible effects that their input has had on a project or issue, they are more likely to stay engaged and participate again in the future.

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To get started with your online public consultation, visit placespeak.com.