Mar 29

No one-size-fits-all for community engagement

It’s no secret COVID-19 has done a number on our ability to communicate with one another in deep and meaningful ways. And that’s especially true for municipalities and the communities they serve.

As municipalities continue to grapple with how to engage community members during the pandemic on everything from master planning to public safety operations to park development, it’s important they leverage all the tools they have to ensure everyone has access to the information and the opportunity to provide feedback. It’s equally important they don’t follow too prescriptive of a plan, recognizing what works in one community may not work in another.

Identifying the community’s various audiences is a critical first step. This helps you determine who needs to get the information and in what ways. With differing levels of trust in government these days and diversity in communication preferences among community members, you need to chart a plan that includes both digital and non-digital tools. How you communicate with a young professional may be entirely different than how you reach a senior resident without internet access.

A quick inventory of your organization’s communications channels can help. Identifying where and how you’re already reaching residents saves you time and duplication in the long run. Your list may include your website, social media, newsletter, e-blast and water bill – just to name a few.

The next step is to think about community partners who can help share your information with your mutual stakeholders. These can include the local school district – or districts, depending on the municipality – community service agencies such as food pantries, health care organizations, senior centers and refugee and immigrant support organizations, among others who are seen as trusted partners by community members. Providing ready-to-go and audience-specific information for social media posts, e-newsletters, printed materials and mailings is a surefire way to extend your reach.

Balancing engagement with pandemic

Once you have the stakeholders, channels and partners figured out, you can get to work on the engagement piece. This is another area where preferences run the gamut. While one resident may prefer to fill out a simple online survey, another wants to hear directly from the organization and provide feedback in real-time. The latter has been challenging amid in-person gathering restrictions during the pandemic.

We’ve helped our municipal clients maintain their commitment to community engagement while helping stop the spread of COVID-19. For example, the City of East Grand Rapids has continued its quarterly public safety community engagement series, leveraging Zoom to provide residents with a firsthand look at operations and an opportunity to provide feedback get questions answered. Cascade Township also leaned on virtual community engagement offerings, including a survey, for its new fire station.

Plainfield Township is offering three virtual and one in-person opportunity during the month of April for residents to weigh in on the draft Reimagine Plainfield corridor redevelopment plan. In-person attendees will be required to wear a face covering and follow physical distancing guidelines. In Kentwood, the Covenant Park advisory committees are kicking off their planning on a long-term strategy for the new 109-acre greenspace during a series of Zoom meetings.

What about the non-digital among us?

Recognizing not everyone wants to join a virtual meeting or has access to the internet, the information that’s shared during these online engagement opportunities and how to provide feedback can be recapped for your website, e-newsletter and quick-bite social media posts, as well as in mailed water bills, school parent packets and senior center newsletters. Cascade, for example, mailed a postcard outlining options for Township residents to provide input on the new fire station. The information also was shared in the Township’s print and digital newsletters and on social media, including a digital campaign.

Municipalities recognize community members need to see themselves in local government as partners whose voices are heard and embedded in their work. The challenge – particularly during a pandemic – can be to determine how best to accomplish this. Knowing your audiences, how and where to meet them and who you can partner with to make this happen is your best bet.

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