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How to Build an Environment for Civil, Civic Engagement Online

February 24, 2021
How to Build an Environment for Civil, Civic Engagement Online

-Show Notes with Michelle Kobayashi and Amanda Baker-

2020 was a tough year. COVID-19 turned our world upside down. Some are arguing that there is a second pandemic happening at the same time -- a pandemic of civil discord. One where our nation is struggling to get along. 

However, people who have been in local government for a while are not strangers to polarizing events. Issues that impact communities and homes are very personal and people feel very passionate and sometimes quite fierce. 

Many online engagement platforms intend to get neighbors together to solve community problems and collaborate. However, often these platforms become the very opposite of civil.

“Even though we have good intentions, it doesn’t always turn out civil or productive when we don’t understand the best ways to get folks together to collaborate,” said Michelle Kobayashi, Senior Vice President of Innovation at Polco. 

How can we use technology to reduce the polarization gap, decrease tensions, and find optimal solutions that appeal to a broad range of residents? 

We know there is a better way to connect with constituents than the “neighborhood fight club” on social media. So we created Polco Live, a tool for local governments to make live audience feedback more useful and engaging during in-person and virtual events.

Polco Live and Building an Environment for Constructive Feedback Online

 

Extend the Table

“Some would argue that the riots over the past year relate to the fact that we have resident groups who feel like their voices are not heard,” said Kobayashi.

In local government, we need to think about who we invite to the table and who feels empowered to participate with us. A big part of engagement is trying to get those folks who are not our typical respondents to the table.

To do this, we need to be intentional and have a plan. 

“Until you make it an organizational priority, it likely will not happen. Those folks have eluded you for years. They will continue to elude you unless you make it a priority,” said Kobayashi. 

Part of the plan should include adopting culturally relevant methods such as translating materials and hiring people from diverse backgrounds. 

“But at the same time, we need to do more than translation,” said Kobayashi. “It’s really about understanding the culture and having authentic relationships with groups who are traditionally not part of local government decision-making.”

One important way to build these authentic relationships is through partnering with community organizations that residents trust.

Lower Barriers to Participation

There are very few people who can attend a three-hour Council meeting two Tuesdays a month. In fact, fewer than 25% of residents ever attend a public meeting in a given year.

If we can reduce those barriers to participation so people don’t have to worry about transportation or their schedules, local governments can increase reach and representation.

Capitalize on Tech

One of the best ways to lower barriers to participation is to embrace technology. 

“At Polco, we use technology to make it much easier for people to have their voices heard without needing to step outside of their comfort zones. This gives everyone an equal voice, ” said Amanda Baker, Technical Product Manager at Polco.

Polco also protects confidentiality so residents can feel comfortable expressing their opinions without worrying about their identity being revealed without their consent.

Decision-makers can have rich data available immediately and can act on it right away. 

Be Data-Focused

Using data in public meetings can help focus conversations, bring in the voices of both the loud and quiet, and help to identify common goals.  

“When we are data-focused we can shift the focus from anecdotal fights about what people think to actual data. Starting with data makes meetings so much more efficient and also more civil,” said Kobayashi. 

Set Parameters

“A lot of social media today is very unstructured, which can sometimes be a good thing. However, adding in some parameters can help increase stability and accuracy,” said Baker.

Polco sets parameters related to both accuracy of responses and security. The Polco platform has a verification process so you can ensure responses come from people who live in your community, rather than random internet trolls. At the same time, individual privacy and confidentiality are always guaranteed. Poll results on Polco are only reported in group form. 

Verification helps provide better quality data. For example, you may want to see how people living in your specific community want to spend tax dollars. Other times, you may want to see a broader picture of respondent opinions. You can filter for either scenario on Polco.

Traditional social media can sometimes devolve into personal attacks and end up off topic. To avoid a downward spiral, Polco allows only one comment per user. This helps to give people a say, while facilitating a productive conversation.

Stay the Course

“Civil, civic engagement comes with building relationships. The more we know each other and interact with each other to solve problems, the more connected we become,” said Baker. 

We designed Polco to build a panel, or following, of respondents so they can continue engaging with local leaders on important topics. This means local governments get feedback from the same people over time and constantly increase their number of followers. You can also see the demographic makeup of your panel following. This shows where you might need to do more outreach to get a more representative sample of your community. 

“Relationships are strained across the nation. That said, the disruptive nature of the pandemic is helping us to find new and innovative ways to collaborate and interact with our communities. Join us to help make our communities more civil again,” said Kobayashi. 

Learn more about Polco Live

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