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Polco News & Knowledge

Nine Things To Look For in a Community Engagement Platform

-by Jen Aceto-

Digital community engagement is the future of public input for local governments - but not all platforms are created equal. 

Now more than ever, local government leaders are looking for actionable feedback from their residents. And in light of the pandemic, they’re increasingly seeking that input online. 

From public safety to parks and rec, decision-makers use input from the public to measure performance, build trust, and connect with residents on the issues they care about. 

Most importantly, local governments need real feedback from real people in their communities. 

Public meetings, focus groups, social media, and project websites all have their pros and cons. These are all places where residents can communicate with their local governments. But these digital and in-person spaces bring a variety of challenges when it comes to accessibility, polarization, and hearing from a few vocal individuals. 

Thankfully, civic leaders now have other ways to receive feedback from their communities. They are turning to online community engagement platforms as the cornerstone of a multi-tiered engagement approach. 

But choosing the right platform isn’t an easy decision. There are many options, and some are easier to use, more reliable, and more scientifically rigorous than others. 

Here are a few things to look for: 


1. Community Engagement With More Than Just the Squeaky Wheels

Men and women sitting at table discussing data

Leaders often look to community engagement platforms in order to hear from more than just the squeaky wheels — those vocal few people who frequently attend public meetings to give their input. 

But they quickly find that they’re encountering the same issue online. 

Engagement platforms that rely on social listening wind up giving megaphones to the minority of people who express their opinions about community issues on social media.

We know that only a loud minority feels comfortable speaking up at meetings or posting opinions about social issues publicly on social media. Additionally, social media is increasingly polarized. So Facebook, Twitter, and other popular platforms are not reliable places to understand what your residents as a whole really think about the community. Social listening alone distorts the perceptions of values and needs within the community. Making important community decisions based purely on what your residents are saying on social media is dangerous, since it only takes those vocal few voices into account.

2. Expertise

Subject matter expert giving local community advice

You shouldn’t have to be a survey scientist or data analyst to get accurate and reliable feedback from your community. That’s why Polco gives you the option to use questions that our researchers have developed, or to create your own based on best practice tips in survey methodology. 

Look for platforms with expertise in both survey research and local government. This combination will ensure that questions are tailored to your needs. Knowing that there are both survey experts and local government experts on the team gives peace of mind when selecting a platform to hear from your community. 

Pre-written, expert-created questions and survey templates make community engagement easier and less time consuming. 

If you’re looking for statistically significant results and a representative sample, it’s important to assess a company’s expertise in these areas. Most platforms offer varying levels of scientific rigor. When you need accurate and reliable results, a high level of confidence is important.

3. Transparency

Men and women in a park discussing survey results

Sharing the results of the surveys and polls you conduct demonstrates local government transparency. When you are open and honest with your results, that builds trust with residents. And the more that your residents trust you, the more likely they are to participate the next time you ask for their input. 

In this way, long-term transparency — coupled with consistency and frequency of engagement — helps you build strong response rates over time. 

Look for a platform that allows you to easily share results and outcomes with your residents. Then, be sure to communicate the actions you are taking based on those results. Showing residents how their feedback influenced policy decisions and strategic planning motivates them to continue to engage.

4. Value

Men and women sitting at table conversing.

Do your research and compare a few different platforms to ensure that you are choosing a platform that truly provides the value you need at a cost that makes sense for your community. The price tag for some platforms can range from $10,000 to almost $300,000 annually, depending on the scope and usage of the platform. 

Decide what you are looking for and compare the options. Social listening platforms, for example, are expensive (and give a megaphone to the vocal few). Traditional online survey platforms can be less expensive, but won’t give you questions or surveys tailored to local government. Other community engagement platforms don’t provide benchmark data so you can compare your community against similar communities across the country. 

Polco allows you to do annual community surveys along with engagement throughout the year, and lets you see all these data points in one place. 

Choose the features that are important to you and will allow you to get accurate feedback from a wide swath of your residents. Then compare similar platforms to find which offers the best value. 

When polling residents for American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) spending, consider using those ARPA funds to purchase a community engagement platform like Polco. 

5. Benchmark Data

Polco Admin View on computer

Once you have feedback from your residents, you’ll likely want to see how you match up against other communities. Check to see if the community engagement platforms you’re looking at offer benchmark data. It’s especially helpful to find one that has collected data over time so that you can see trends in your community and nationwide. 

For example, many communities saw a dip in public safety ratings in 2020. Were those results unusual? Without benchmarks or trends, you wouldn’t know. 

Being able to compare your city to others puts your results into greater context, so you can better understand what those ratings really mean. And this shows you where there is need for improvement. 

Polco is the only community engagement platform with over 25 years of benchmark data for local governments. 

6. Verification

Polco poll being used on phone

Leaders want to know that they’re hearing real responses from real people.

It’s important to choose a platform with a verification feature because this gives greater confidence that responses are legitimate. If respondents provide details like their names and zip codes, Polco’s verification technology compares that information against public records (such as voter files). This confirms that responses are coming from real people within the jurisdiction. With Polco, verification also comes with a guarantee to privacy. In our case, individual level data is never reported. Polco clients only see the aggregate, group results. 

Platforms that don’t provide this sort of verification feature run the risk of bots, fraud, and ballot-stuffing. Verification can help prevent duplicates, and leaders emerge with a more accurate sense of what their residents are saying. 

7. A Secure Privacy Policy

Computer with lock illustration on screen

Not all platforms hold respondent privacy and anonymity in the same regard. Make sure to look into a community engagement company’s privacy policy to see how they protect individual information. 

It’s a good idea to share the privacy policy to respondents as well. This can assure them that their answers are truly anonymous and will be reported only in group form. Especially when it comes to sensitive topics, residents want to know that they can speak honestly and anonymously. 

Polco’s privacy policy ensures that no one - no public official, customer, partner or anyone else - will ever see individually identifiable information linked to responses. 

8. Accessibility

Two older people sitting on a bench

A large majority of American adults are online, but not everyone. Check to see if the community engagement company you’re considering offers offline, hybrid, mailed, or paper survey options. This way, companies like Polco allow you to get input from residents without internet access. 

Polco values accessibility in all forms, which is why we strive to make our platform ADA compliant, affordable, and easy to use. We also provide surveys and polls in multiple languages so that you can hear from a greater variety of residents. 

9. Inclusive Research Methodology

3 women working together on data visualization

It would be great if you could hear from every single member of your community. But for most communities, this would be far too costly, time-consuming, and logistically challenging. 

Instead, you can use a representative sample: a subset of the population that accurately reflects the characteristics of the community as a whole.

In effect, Polco’s survey sampling methods yield inclusive results that accurately reflect your community.

Most community engagement platforms don’t provide an option for you to hear from a representative sample of respondents. Investigate the research methodology of the platform you’re considering. You’ll want to understand how resident  responses will be analyzed and weighted, if at all. 

It can be helpful to do a bit of research into how survey sampling works and what makes a scientific survey trustworthy

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