Toward Robust Online Community Engagement

Posted on March 18, 2020
By Max Hardy
Online EngagementEnough is being said right now about Covid-19. Yet projects are still being planned, important decisions are being made, and there are programs to be designed and implemented. Some community engagement methods, including deliberative panels, are not acceptable now due to the perceived risk of spreading infection. So, what to do?

Fortunately, sophisticated online engagement options have been developed; offering more than the chance for people to simply ‘have their say’. Here are just two examples, Synthetron and Ethelo.

Synthetron is an online meeting platform developed in Belgium where people can participate in a moderated discussion that produces a written record of the discussion and a record of key areas of agreement. Nivek Thompson, principal of Deliberately Engaging, who has brought Synthetron to Australia and New Zealand, says ‘Our platform enables you to share opinions, gather feedback, comment on the opinions of others, build on each other’s ideas, score ideas, and co-create solutions, in real time. It’s fast, easy to use, and scalable for conversations with 10 or 1000. 

Anna Kelderman of Shape Urban and I used Synthetron for a controversial project in Perth two years ago, and it worked a treat – it provided an avenue for people to meaningfully participate who were unable to be involved in a deliberative panel. The structured questions and moderation contributed to participants appreciating complexities of the challenge, different points of view, and providing thoughtful contributions. In short, there was evidence of at least a moderate level of deliberation.

Synthetron is ideal when you want to engage with your community, stakeholders or team but don’t want to bring people together in person. It works from any location. Participants only need a laptop or tablet and an internet connection. It identifies best ideas as scored by participants and generates a written record of the conversation and a report of the key areas of agreement. Imagine having that within several hours of up to 1000 people having dialogue and deliberating!

And it’s not hands-off the way most online activity is.  As the facilitator, you are still able to change the flow of the ‘meeting’ if the event is not achieving your needs.  In the Perth project it became clear we needed to change it up a bit, and just like that, we facilitators in the back room (from three different geographical locations and time zones!) changed the content to suit – just as if we would have if we were in the room together. 

Ethelo, developed in Canada, is quite different in how it works, but it too supports deliberation. It is particularly useful when some options have been developed, and where trade-offs need to be considered. There are a number of templates which will suit many different projects, such as participatory budgeting, community plans, project evaluation, policy development, local area planning, and environmental master plans. Respondents cannot simply impose a wish list; parameters are identified and built in.

Sophisticated algorithms enable groups of any size to solve complex, constrained problems and find practical solutions with broad support quickly and easily’. Anna Kelderman of Shape Urban is one of the first consultants to use Ethelo, and she is very impressed with its functionality.  The ability to include complex options that people rate as great to not-so-great is one thing, but the way the algorithm can require participants to modify their decisions based on the trade-offs is excellent – think participatory budgeting currency limits, but instead of upper $ value the limits can be anything from spatial (total m2) through to limits on how many ideas can be selected overall. 

Newcastle City Council has also used Ethelo. A number of case studies are available on their website that will give you a clearer idea of how this platform can be applied.

Of course there are many other programs and platforms out there, and they are regularly adapting and improving their functionality. They are all good at different things, so do check them out. Many are well known and used in Australia and New Zealand, such as Social Pinpoint, Engagement HQ, OurSay, Zoom and The Hive.  Lesser known ones perhaps are nTropy and Neighbourlytics, which are great for research and crunching data.

Online engagement of course is not a simple panacea. As with any community engagement, to be useful, it is vital that: 

  • The scope of the engagement is clear (i.e., what is on the table to be influence, and what is a given)
  • Questions being asked of participants (closely related to objectives of community engagement) have been carefully thought through and tested
  • Diversity of participation is achieved (i.e., it is not only the hyper-engaged, or organized stakeholder organizations who participate)
  • There is commitment to very seriously consider all input and to communicate how this is utilized
  • There is sufficient and accessible information available to help people to participate in an informed way
  • The process itself strengthens community and builds trust.

Using a combination of online platforms can also support dynamic and robust community engagement, for example, providing information and answering questions through a Zoom webinar, followed by a discussion about the issues on Synthetron and reaching agreement via Poll Everywhere.

It is also important to recognise that online engagement doesn’t work for everyone, but there are ways of helping people to participate online with a bit of thought and planning. Engaging the community during the Great Bubonic Plague in the 14 Century would have been perilous. Today we are fortunate we can still engage meaningfully if we combine community engagement principles with sophisticated online platforms.

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Community Engagement

Max Hardy

By Max Hardy

Max Hardy works with leaders and organizations to achieve results through collaboration. He works as a coach, facilitator, process designer, trainer and strategic advisor.

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