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Online Engagement Helps Local Governments to Connect with Residents Throughout Policy Cycle

December 26, 2020
Online Engagement Helps Local Governments to Connect with Residents Throughout Policy Cycle

-Panel Discussion Video with Matt Fulton-

“Why didn’t we shift to a focus on online engagement earlier?” said Bar Harbor, Maine Engagement Coordinator Nina Baraldi St. Germain.

St. Germain is one of three local government leaders on a panel who said that their recent focus on digital engagement has allowed them to engage more residents successfully throughout the policy life cycle than ever before. 

In this video, Polco’s Matt Fulton speaks with local government leaders St. Germain, along with Dylan Feik and Stephen O’Brien. They discuss how the pandemic motivates them to focus on creative online engagement strategies, ultimately helping them to connect more continuously with more residents.

 

 

Successful Online Engagement

With the pandemic, all three local government leaders have had to pivot quickly to online engagement. All three have found success with this type of engagement.

“People want to participate in government but want to do it from the comfort and confines of their own home. Reaching into their home has been our focus,” said Feik, City Manager of Monrovia, California.

As the pandemic began, Monrovia shifted many services and programs online. Now libraries, parks and recreation programs, and crime reporting all happen virtually. Even a massive community-wide birthday celebration occurred online. Program participation has gone up.

“Life is busy. This was true even before the pandemic,” said O’Brien, General Manager and City Clerk for Guelph, Ontario, Canada. “In a way these digital means of reaching out to people has made engagement more accessible.”

Before COVID-19, Guelph was planning to host multiple town hall sessions to engage community members in reevaluating the structure of their city council. As the pandemic came, Guelph turned to virtual town halls with panelists on the call. They recorded the town hall and posted it online. They used social media and online surveys to solicit more opinions. Over 600 people completed the online survey. 

The pandemic also forced Bar Harbor, Maine to quickly adjust how they communicate with residents. At the beginning of the pandemic, The Town hosted an online zoom forum so residents could ask questions to the town government, library, school, and national parks. The turnout was at least double what any in-person forums had been previously. 

Narrow the Gap Between In-Person and Online Experiences

The leaders say it is important to them to narrow the gap between how in-person experiences and online experiences feel for residents. 

For Guelph, this means that they decided to hold virtual office hours during mornings, afternoons, and evenings. This gives residents the opportunity to call in and ask questions to a knowledgeable staff member.

To help community members have a digital experience that feels real, Monrovia collected aerial drone footage and photographs to visually show a park affected by wildfires. This helps residents to see firsthand impacts, so they can help provide more informed feedback on what to do about the park.

Bar Harbor’s focus is on real conversations with community members, even through an online experience. The Town uses the online community engagement platform Polco to ask residents questions about key decisions. About 15% of the Town is on Polco.

Connect with Residents Throughout the Policy Cycle


One thing that the leaders have found is that a focus on digital engagement makes it easier to engage residents throughout the policy cycle.

St. Germain said that before they used Polco, often people would come together with an idea but then would become less engaged during the project’s important planning phase. 

“Polco has been a useful tool to remind people that there is still this ongoing conversation. It lets people know that this project is still happening and that we want to know what they are thinking about decisions we are considering,” said St. Germain.

Digital tools have enabled Guelph to get input from the community well before the City Council makes final decisions. They engage residents to contemplate ideas, consider potential options and dialogue about the pros and cons of the options. Only after that point, do they feel comfortable presenting the options to the Council.

“If we engage early and often, people can see the fruits of their labor in the decisions that elected people make on behalf of the community,” said O’Brien. “Some decisions need to be made now. But some can take longer. And if we take the time and we engage the community, we do it right. I think that builds a sense of community.”

Learn more through Polco’s website about other ideas for engaging residents.

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