5 offline ways to complement online community engagement

In the last 3 years whilst working in Australia I have seen a massive shift in Community Engagement to the online space. In fact I would say, in my own honest opinion, that Australia is in fact up there as one of the world leaders when it comes to the availability of home-grown tools to provide online community engagement opportunities. Companies like Bang the Table, DELIB, Townhall Social, Social PinPoint and CrowdSpot all call Australia home and are, I know, making inroads into other countries selling their online tools in the UK, US and Canada as well as I’m sure elsewhere.

Recently in South Australia the State Government through the Department of Premier and Cabinet and its ‘Better Together’ showcases told the world about its Fund My Community project. During the showcase, which was attended by around 100 of SA’s best community leaders and engagers, I followed along on Twitter using the helpful #fundmycommunity hashtag.

One discussion that caught my eye was about the fact that the SA government were seemingly pushing hard on the online community engagement opportunity, especially around ‘Fund my community’, but neglected to show how people who don’t have access to online facilities, whether through lack of access to equipment, data allowance and knowledge, or through choice, could engage with the project offline i.e. traditionally face to face.

As someone who for a long time has championed the need for online community engagement to be mirrored or complemented by similar offline opportunities (and vice-versa) this Twitter discussion struck a chord. It’s certainly true that by doing only online engagement you are alienating people who can’t or don’t want to, for whatever reason, get online and participate. But mirror that situation when using only using offline tools and you are effectively doing the same. There will be people who cannot participate because your public meeting clashes with work or the survey you sent by post is not a priority over filling out a job application and the quick 5 minutes sticking dots on a paper map at the local shops is by no means as important than the 5 minutes you need to pick up the kids from school and get them to footy. However given the choice between an offline and an online option to participate and you will find you are actually opening up the engagement to a much wider audience.

The Queensland State government have, as I did when I was last in Local Government, recognised this in their community engagement policy.

‘Online community engagement refers to any form of community engagement with members of the public that occurs through the online channel… Offline community engagement techniques must complement those used online to cater for a diverse range of engagement needs and preferences.’

In reality it’s not hard as when you think about most online community engagement tools they have actually grown out of something that was once done face-to-face and so as we move to a more online society it seemed timely that I suggest five complimentary offline community engagement techniques and tools you can use to mirror when rolling out your online options.

1) Twitter vs comments card / postcards

Online: Twitter

Available to all, this social media platform is becoming a great place for consultations and a giving call to action. Even if it’s just to inform people that something is happening Twitter is a powerful engagement tool. I have seen some councils using Twitter to ask for feedback in 140 characters but also link/invite people via a URL in a tweet to submit longer comments on projects and have their say. The sharing of images adds a hint of collaboration and crowdsourcing to this simple platform.

Offline: Comments card/postcard

Yes the humble comment card is basically an offline tweet so much so if you want it to compliment the online alternative exactly you can restrict feedback on each card to 140 characters. Have you seen paper tweets? These are great little cards with 140 spaces for people to write a message which are then pinned on a comments board. As with Twitter, people can then scan the comments and if both the community participating and council engaging see fit actually tweet out peoples comments, print in newsletters/reports or take photos for other social media platforms to effectively show the world what people are saying. People can also add a sticky star if they agree with a comment.

2) Survey Monkey vs paper surveys

Online: Survey Monkey (other monkeys… I mean survey tools are available)

For me Survey Monkey is one of the simplest, and free to a degree, tools available to engage people in the online space. It basically does what it says on the tin, is a survey tool, which can be used by a monkey as it’s so easy to set up and share… no offence to monkeys. Used to consult, involve and at a push collaborate, surveys have their place in community engagement folklore and are living on in this online incarnation often used by companies and government to measure satisfaction after a service has been received.

Offline: a Survey

Almost a ‘no s**t Sherlock’ moment but it’s obvious if you are using an online survey tool then just do the exact same survey offline, simple right? But here is where it gets better. You can still use survey monkey to collate your results no matter how they are collected… SAY WHAT!!

Simple really. Set up your online survey, print off as a hard copy (survey monkey allows you to export for printing) then take those surveys to the group/individuals you wish to fill it in. Once complete and with a bit of elbow grease you just input those answers in online so they are collated with those collected online already to produce lovely graphs and reports. Ok the date and time stamps may be a little wonky but all the results are as collected.

Second to that I have another way which I have found quite successful. Place the survey URL on an iPad/Tablet device and actually go out and speak to people whilst getting them to fill in the survey. This of course has its risks (you need Wi-Fi/mobile internet, insurance for broken/stolen devices, the need to open and close the URL in a browser each time to ensure results are recorded) but also its benefits including additional conversation is noted, the iPad can be preloaded with images and other information linked to the consultation, you can go to where people are not ask them to come to you and results are saved and can be viewed in real time alongside others being collected online.

3) Have your say vs public meetings

Online: ‘Have your say’ platforms

There are a number out there and are basically a webpage often built into the organisations own homepage where its stakeholders can have a say on the most recent consultation and in some cases give ongoing feedback. They are ultimately sites for increasing dialogue from consultation to collaboration. Examples include Bang the Table’s Engagement HQ and DELIB’s Citizen Space. Often these platforms include multiple tools for people to participate with including the option for dialogue, surveys and ranking tables but at an extra cost to the user. Favoured by seemingly progressive councils these platforms allow multiple consultations at once that are easily managed and moderated from a desktop computer.

Offline: A public meeting using a world café style approach

For a while now public meetings have been the boring talking shops of the ‘usual suspects’ and those who want a free sandwich and cup of tea. Yes occasionally you will be engaging on a subject that brings out some passion but normally this will only leads to those who shout loudest being heard by the few listening.

However why not try this. Take the World Café model and shake it up a little. Instead of 4 or 5 tables of discussions around the subject at hand mirror the online tools of the ‘Have your say’ platform as activities for the community to take part in. Limit time at each table to 20 mins, facilitate, rotate the room and away you go. You can use conversation tools, survey tools, pictures, dotmocracy, ranking cards and magic wands for dream solutions, whatever fits around the 4 or 5 tables use. Of course don’t forget the tea and biscuits.

4. Budget calculators vs paper, pens and sticky dots

Online: budget calculators

Alongside the introduction of ‘Have your say’ platforms a number of joint (add on application to the ‘Have you Say’ function) and separate ‘Budget Allocator/Simulation’ tools have appeared over the last few years allowing Councils, States and health services to ask their residents and service users how best to allocate important community funds. Born out the growing movement around participatory budgets the online versions have given those who don’t have time to attend a workshop a chance to sit and play with fancy graphics, spending sliders and percentages that when changed estimate your final projected budget and outcomes for spending in certain areas. Some have an element of Gamification too as when complete you can share via social media with friends and ask them to do better. One of my favourites, which is no longer available online, was used by the Lambeth Library Service in London that asked users of the library to help them budget for the libraries future. It included the ability to use voluntary staff and cutting out old technology like CDs to help save money. Have a schooch around the Delib and Bang the Table websites and you will find their versions being used by councils in Australia and the UK.

Offline: Paper, coloured pens and sticky dots

Lets not lie. When your council’s annual budget comes out for consultation you probably don’t even realise. Unless there is a proposed, larger than average, rate rise which hits the news you may not even know a consultation is happening. Online budget tools are changing this as councils and other public services are starting to push more accountability on the way they spend to their communities.

When doing this offline you need to keep it simple but also interesting so people want to get involved. Obviously some outlying ‘informing’ needs to happen beforehand regarding barriers, negotiables and non-negotiables. Easily set up in a shopping centre or library foyer where a quick chat can get people involved. Here are a few possibilities:

  • Firstly set priorities with the community for allocating the budget and then for each priority, using a sliding scale on a wall, get those participating to stick a coloured dot on how much that priority should get

5. Online mapping tools vs drawing a map

Online: Mapping tools

Like the online budgeting tools, Mapping tools have increasingly become available as an add on to your ‘have your say’ option or as separate consultation platforms you can build into your own website. Companies like Social Pinpoint and CrowdSpot to name just a couple are leading the way in online mapping tools that allow users to publically post feedback, ideas and issues on a consultation project and pin them to a map given them a geographic location. These pins can sometimes be colour coded or image based (and include image input — link a photo) to help categorise, collate and analyse the data collected.

Offline: Use a map or draw a map

Again there is a simple solution or two and ways to mirror this online option offline as the tools are already there. Maps are readily available and in most work places — councils/state governments — there will be someone who can get you a detailed printed map of any area. Once you have this map simply ask the same questions as you are online and ask people to use colour coded post-it notes or sticky dots to highlight certain ideas, issues and feedback.

To take it to the next level get people to actually draw the maps themselves. It’s amazing how differently people will see a street, a neighbourhood and a district just from the way they live there. This is a great way to understand a community as people will show their interactions as well as identify issues and benefits of an area. Below are a few picture examples of how I have used maps in my work.

So that’s just 5 opportunities of how you could mirror the online tools now being favoured by some councils, State governments and organisations in their consultation projects with their communities with offline alternatives so everyone has a choice on how they participate. Obviously the detail isn’t here just the idea so happy to discuss more on or offline.

Let me know if you have any other face to face ideas that complement online consultation tools.

You can find more innovative community engagement ideas online and offline on my Pinterest boards.

Originally published at www.commsgodigital.com.au on March 13, 2015.

Innovative Community Engagement. @engage2act Director and Board member, #engage2act advocate, #gatehashing instigator.

Innovative Community Engagement. @engage2act Director and Board member, #engage2act advocate, #gatehashing instigator.