May 28, 2020

Sebastian Weise

Getting ready to engage online – tools and considerations

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The Covid-19 crisis has undoubtedly had a substantial impact on society and the economy. The need to stay at home and practice social distancing has affected our family and workplaces. Among the many implications, it meant that local authorities and companies had to adapt to working online rapidly while avoiding non-essential travel, site visits, and other activities that typically relied on face-to-face meetings, including public engagement. 

For the construction sector, some of the changes in place now will likely stay for the long-term. For organisations in the sector, this means really to adopt online collaboration tools and digitise the various processes that have not been touched or drastically rethought for years. 

Public engagement, one of the critical areas for planning projects has been particularly under strain. Typically, public participation has been conducted face-to-face to ensure that there is an opportunity to shape new proposals to the needs of the locality and with the input of local stakeholders who live there. Covid-19 crisis has added to the usual challenges of public engagement by making it even harder to have those conversations in public meetings. 

Therefore the key question is: how can you get ready to engage online and what online engagement tools can help?

What is already happening in the industry?

There have been some very productive changes and developments as a result of social distancing measures, as major consultancies have started to review their setup of consultation tools. For instance, some consultancies now offer a whole package of online consultation tools. With exciting developments in the creation of virtual consultation rooms to accompany the standard methods of engaging with the public online, such as surveys. 

Furthermore, the public sector has adapted since the outbreak of Covid-19. The government now allows for the publication of notices for new developments via social media, instead of more traditional media, such as newspapers. In response, local planning committees have moved to video conferencing and in some cases have reached new audiences. 

However, there remain significant challenges in adapting to engagement online, as many Statements of Community Involvement (that define expectations to engage) lack mention of suitable online engagement formats. Thus, the standard method of online engagement used by the private sector does not go beyond a simple online form and website. 


So how can you get ready to engage online? 

Here are a few pointers that are essential in evaluating the approach to engage online and the kinds of tools to use: 

  • Work backwards from your purpose: What is your project about and where is input useful and needed? What are your key milestones where external input is valued? As before, clarify the milestones and timings and note them down in a document. 

  • Based on your needs for feedback how deep does your engagement need to be? Below are various formats of engagement according to the reach and depth of engagement. “Open ended” refers to engagement to establish principles; “closed ended” refers to feedback on set options for smaller changes.

 
 
 
 


Open ended (earlier stages)

Closed ended (later stages)

Narrow reach (small audience)

Video calls with invited audience for remote workshops (for example Zoom, offers breakout rooms)


Collaborative boards like miro.com or Google Docs draw to review and discuss plans

Video calls with defined consultees for Q&A sessions


Various small group voting tools, like Slido, are suitable for feedback

Wider reach (large audience)


Project website


Participatory maps that enable to do a community appraisal of a local area early with a large audience


Again, project website


A  virtual consultation room to replace the experience of a public exhibition


Interactive Site Maps for feedback on proposal and direct feedback


Interactive virtual walking tours using 360 photo images 

Most importantly, recognising if the tool fits the purpose will be achieved by evaluating which online tools are suitable to you. There are some important aspects to consider:

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    How user friendly is the tool for members of the public? This is both about the interface and also the way plans are presented.
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    Does the tool handle contacts in GDPR compliant manner? Especially important for projects that are large and longer-term where follow-up is provided.
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    What flexibility is there for your team to collaborate and share the load? Can you have several administrators and can other consortium members log in or see the content?
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    How quick and easy can you collate your responses and make them useful for the project? Is there a simple analytics dashboard with flexible export options?
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    Does the online tool easily integrate with important inhouse software? This might be important to work more effectively and ensure data gets in and out easily.
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    Does the online tool play well with your website and branding? This is key to provide a consistent experience to respondents.
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    How often do you engage? Do you have a great variety of projects that always require a bespoke approach; or do you have similar projects that benefit from a streamlined approach. 

The abundance of free and readily-tools online for creating websites, polls, shared boards, or even virtual meetings provides a great starting point. 

Beyond this, bespoke consultation platforms that are designed to close the gap between project owners and members of the public can make a huge difference in the time saved arranging, conducting, and interpreting public engagement. They combine the necessary functionalities, such as presentation of the proposal, contact and response handling, as well as reporting; while at the same time reducing friction for members of the public who want to respond.

Conclusion  

The Covid-19 crisis is an opportunity for developers, architects, and planners to review the tools that are used in-house and to define a process that works for them. However, we suggest this is also a good opportunity to consider new tools beyond simple feedback forms embedded in websites, or even in combination with length PDF documents.

While we live in a crisis that requires a significant change in practice, there are also many free and increasingly purpose-built tools that can assist in moving engagement and consultations online. Many tools can be combined in an engagement programme to either enable different kinds of feedback and to cater to the needs of different audiences that you like to engage with.

 
 

Interested in a meeting to review your setup?

Set up an online meeting with our customer success team


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