Getting people to engage isn’t easy—online or off. Here are ten barriers to online engagement and some strategies to overcome them.
Language and Literacy
Barrier: Public participation can involve long, intense discussions of difficult policy matters that often uses technical language and terms that may be unfamiliar to residents. Similarly, online engagement can involve reading technical documents—such as plans and policies—which are not traditionally praised for their readability. People with low levels of literacy, or who speak another primary language can also be disadvantaged.
Strategy: Ensure the language you use in information leaflets, advertising materials and during engagement activities is as simple and straightforward as possible. Use short sentences and short words whenever possible. If you must use technical terms, include an easily accessible glossary of terms. Produce resources in a range of different media to increase accessibility. (e.g. digital media, video demonstrations, photo demonstrations, podcasts)
Lack of Physical Cues
Barrier: Without in person body language—such as facial expressions and gestures—there can be a risk of misunderstanding or over reacting to an online comment.
Strategy: The asynchronous nature of online engagement provides participants the time to be more thoughtful—and less reactive—when posting their comments, which helps to reduce misunderstandings. Additionally, written responses can often provide a better opportunity to properly contribute a more detailed response than verbal conversation.
Barrier: Even if you are online regularly, a couple of hours can seem an eternity when you are waiting for a reply. On the flip side, if you miss a day or two, the discussion may have moved on and your point is no longer relevant to the current thread.
Strategy: Offer notifications of follow-up comments to allows participants to return to the discussion forum when it is convenient for them. Additionally, threaded discussions enable participants to join a discussion forum where they want.
Barrier: Individual consultations don’t stand on their own – they compete for resident’s attention with a spectrum of other public engagement opportunities. This is even more true online. Additionally, people are busy and often feel that they do not have time to engage. The response to overload is often to simply switch off and not engage at all.
Strategy: Be more discerning about who you consult with, what you consult about and the scope of your consultation. Also, be specific in your outreach, explain why the consultation is important and the impact the residents will have on the outcome. A more nuanced and targeted approach will help ensure that you are still receiving the information you need, without alienating large segments of your potential audience.
Lack of Direction
Barrier: Participants who are used to having a facilitator telling them what to do can feel lost when trying to engage online
Strategy: Clearly explain the parameters of the consultation and what is expected of participants on the main overview page. It is also important to appoint moderators to guide discussion forums and prompt responses, or provide clarification when needed.
Barrier: There can be general community apathy to the consultation topic, or the theme(s) that the proponent is focusing on.
Strategy: Be selective on how you select—and present—you consultation topic. It is easier to attract local residents in connection with, for example, housing rather than economic development.
Barrier: Most participants are passive and do not active engage with the topic.
Strategy: The ability to sit back and contemplate an issue on your own time and in your own home is a key benefits of online engagement. Participants who might ordinarily feel embarrassed, nervous or overwhelmed in a open house or public forum can learn and formulate their own positions without external pressures. This can help engage a broader spectrum of participants beyond the ‘usual suspects who we are used to hearing from.
Barrier: Many residents feel that the government is out of touch with their concerns and do not feel that their input will be listened to, or even seen. The feel that consultation is just for show not to make real change.
Strategy: Consultation research has stressed the need for transparency on the part of proponents in order to develop trust. Expectations need to be realistic and carefully managed.
Barrier: Difficulty signing up for, or using, online platforms can make participants less likely to en return.
Strategy: Keep your consultation platform as simple and as familiar as possible. Take cues from other online platforms that people are familiar with, such as Facebook. Also, be sure to provide the necessary training and support participants need to be involved effectively. Offer lots of tutorials and a variety of help options.
Barrier: It can be hard to get people’s attention, especially online. We are being flooded with more and more information through various channels, and it can be hard to attract resident’s attention to you consultation.
Strategy: Spend time on your communications and outreach strategy. This is an essential part of any public consultation process, but is often overlooked. a consultation will only be successful if people are aware of it.