Online tools designed to solicit feedback, aid civic engagement, citizen science, ideation, social research and even deliberative democracy are there for the taking. Patricia Moore scopes out some of the options.
The term digital engagement is tossed about in a rapidly-evolving interconnected environment. Essentially, it refers to any conversation online. But not all conversations are created equal. As Buzz Channel MD Ben Parsons explains, while access to technology and social platforms exposes us to a greater number of ideas and voices, many tend to reflect our own thoughts.
“There’s an ‘echo chamber’ situation where people agree with things they already ‘like’ or ‘follow’,” he says. “And if we do see differing opinions we tend to ignore or dismiss them.”
Yet, Ben says some online engagement tools are giving people a chance to hear the opinions of others, getting information out and prompting debate in imaginative and interesting ways.
And this type of citizen engagement is enabling councils to tell their stories in ways that give access to, and better understanding of, issues.
Marion Dowd, ALGIM vice-president and IT manager for Western Bay of Plenty District Council, talks of creating new ways for communities to take part and feel empowered.
“Digital engagement is also changing the conversations we’re having internally and with our elected members,” she says. “Importantly, it’s challenging councils to be relevant, to understand why the community should care about who we are and what we do.”
Councils are using digital engagement tools in new and innovative ways, says Joe Waller, Bang the Table NZ engagement manager. “There’s a rise in the use of these tools and also a big movement to open-source code – picking up pieces of work from across other councils for utilisation. It’s fantastic to see this collaboration.”
But Joe says many tools, such as surveys and quick polls, are taking a short-term, transactional approach to community engagement.
“The real strength of online engagement tools is their application in the pre-engagement phase,” he emphasises. “This brings the community along on the journey and involves them in the early stages where they can influence more of the outcomes.”
For Ariana Ross, GHD stakeholder engagement specialist, one of the most exciting things about digital engagement is just how accessible it is. “It doesn’t require a wealth of technical knowledge or a big budget. There are also lots of free tools to help deliver information.”
However, Ariana says the vast majority of digital engagement tools inform, rather than consult or involve the public. And while there are a lot of benefits, this goes only so far.
“The increase in tools designed to solicit feedback is the really exciting stuff. There are tools that aid online civic engagement, citizen science, ideation, social research and even deliberative democracy.”
Internet of Things (IoT) technology is probably the newest option for innovation in local government, says Datacom’s product manager, local government, Anthony Sidwell.
“While IoT isn’t directly engagement-related, by allowing councils to automate real-time data-gathering and hence, more accurate analytics, it can help councils come up with better investment and maintenance options to take to their communities for feedback,” he says.
“The challenge is that most existing software and device platforms used by councils don’t have IoT connectivity or enablement baked in so integration can be difficult and time-consuming.”
New ‘born in the cloud’ solutions are providing an answer, says Anthony.
Ben cites a number of “really cool online engagement tools that are interesting, enabling and fun”. These include Pol.is, a multi-stakeholder deliberation tool which, in Taiwan, helped resolve in just a few months a long-deadlocked national policy debate on alcohol sales.
He also cites tools such as Your Priorities which are being widely used, particularly in Europe. And 3D interactive maps are another example.
Ben says use of interactive simulation tools – including budget simulators – is growing. And he cites the Shape Auckland Housing Simulator which encouraged input on the city’s Unitary Plan and challenged Aucklanders to find space for another 400,000 homes.
Anthony says good engagement tools are focusing more on giving people relevant engagement opportunities. Such tools, he says, are making it easy, convenient and meaningful for people to respond which increases the possibility of future engagement.
“Rather than requiring stakeholders to sign up directly with councils, a number of new products, such as Antenno, use location and geo-targeting to allow people to receive council information and engagement opportunities based on places and topics they care about.”
In Auckland, The Southern Initiative has seen the development of UPsouth with residents responding to South Auckland’s challenges by sharing ideas focused on the community’s strengths.
And in the Western Bay of Plenty, contentious issues around dog control have taken a new and positive turn thanks to ‘Dogs in the Western Bay’ – and canine hero Alfie.
Further afield, citizens in Boston ‘engaged’ through ‘Adopt-a-Hydrant’ are helping maintain public infrastructure by shovelling snow.
The availability of citizen engagement tools is one thing. The big question is, are councils, many short of digital natives, ready for them?
Joe says that software now has rigorous reporting on the outcomes of engagement projects.
“This should lead to improving engagement practice, better results for both community and council and a greater understanding of the relationship councils have with their communities.”
However, Ariana warns of unrealistic expectations around ‘build it and they will come’ scenarios. “Councils need to adequately integrate or promote new tools,” she says. She urges them to beware of overestimating the motivation and commitment of users to overcome barriers such as difficulty finding the website and lengthy registration processes.
Marion believes councils need to change with the times. “We need to be future-proofing the way we carry out digital engagement. This means a different mindset in the way we approach engagement, how we plan for it, how we communicate it and what investment we’re prepared to make.”
She says the benefits are many and lead to more informed decisions.
“There’s a hunger from the community to know what’s happening instantly. The challenge for councils is to be a source of information in ways that are meaningful, reliable, credible and relevant, constantly looking at ways to make it easier and more compelling for our hard-to-reach citizens to have their say.”
• Patricia Moore is a freelance writer. firstname.lastname@example.org
This article was first published in the July 2017 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.