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by Mallory Baker

This is the first entry in a three-part series about strategies for successful virtual public engagement. The second part is now available.

While states throughout the U.S. are slowly reopening, many citizens are still wary of in-person interaction—especially interaction in larger group settings. It is becoming increasingly apparent that general efforts to reduce the size of public gatherings are likely to continue well into the future.

Especially when it comes to civic engagement, where the comfort and safety of participants is of the utmost importance, we must find an alternative to the in-person meetings and open houses that are typically the centerpieces of public and stakeholder engagement. To aid us in this process at Walker, we’ve developed a series of guiding principles to help us create virtual public engagement plans that adhere to local, state, and federal health and safety guidelines, maximize broad and diverse participation, and create a truly human-driven outcome.

Walker’s Guiding Principles for Virtual Engagement

We Build a Foundation

Alongside our clients, we develop a clear articulation of what we’d like to accomplish with each constituency, and what specific feedback we’d like to get in the form of a brief set of guiding questions.

We Focus on Productive Collaboration

In any form of public engagement—but especially virtual—opportunities for input should be clearly and concisely constructed to ensure productive conversation that results in usable feedback. We rely on clarity of purpose to limit ambiguous questions or unstructured “open mic time” in virtual meetings and charettes.

We Continue to Educate

In-person public engagement offers many formal and informal opportunities to educate. Online, these opportunities must be created. For surveys and other online commenting opportunities, we provide prep packets and resources for participants.

We Choose Quality and Quantity

Online surveys can generate 50 to 100 times the participation that public meetings do, and 10 to 20 times the participation of online “crowdsourcing” activities, like mapping and discussion threads. Online surveys also allow gathering of specific feedback, minimize the time participants need to dedicate to the activity, allow participants to share easily with friends, family, and colleagues, and are easily incorporated into deliverables and reports.

We are Sensitive to Participants’ Time

We create planned activities that take roughly 5 minutes or less for all or most participants. Particularly with surveys, we aim for simple, clear questions and straightforward, concise language at a 6th to 8th grade reading level.

We Have Multiple Options

Our public engagement strategies include multiple and redundant opportunities for input, especially when programs are 100% virtual.

We Create Promoters and Champions

We make participants promoters and champions of input opportunities—such as online surveys or online discussion threads and activities—by making them easily shareable on social media platforms and through other methods.

We Make Our Tools Accessible

We create accessible tools that can be used by people of varying abilities, age levels, education, and more. We use clear and concise language, provide alternative text describing images, graphics, and maps, and accompany any videos or audio with transcription or subtitles.

We Keep in Touch

After engaging constituents, we get back in touch with them to share final deliverables and explain how their input was incorporated and why their opinions mattered to the project outcome.

Through these guiding principles, we create public engagement plans that go beyond “checking the boxes”, focusing on a clear path from the public engagement process, all the way to finalization of deliverables, implementation, and beyond.

This is the first of a three-part series. Continue reading part two.