What tools and strategies are the most effective in engaging with citizens on issues especially relating to climate change?

The Covid-19 crisis has moved meetings and conversations online. The future is likely to include a mix of in person and online communication. What tools and strategies are the most effective in engaging with citizens?

The future is likely to include a mix of in person and online communication. This second session on engagement asked: What online tools and strategies are the most effective in engaging with citizens?

This session complemented the next meeting on citizens’ juries and assemblies – where the emphasis is on representativeness of a selected sample of participants – with examples of tools that allow open participation by larger (in principle, unlimited) numbers of people.

Alex Parsons from MySociety introduced a wide range of online possibilities with details that are well-summarised in his slides, so not repeated here. Worth noting is is his emphasis on the potential importance of using tools – such as cluster or wikisurveys that allow participants a role in framing the questions as well as formulating possible answers. This is useful especially in the early stages of a process, when it is important to gather ideas.

Also note that promotion of opportunities to engage is important, just as it is in offline efforts, and works best it if combines online and offline elements. There isn’t a single, simple method for doing this – it depends on the issue and the local community.

Laura Botev of CitizenLab introduced their “e-democracy” platform for local government. They are an international operation, looking to expand their work in the UK. The pitch is for a one-stop hub that centralises consultation projects. That offers a range of methods similar to those already indicated, to deliver engagement, help manage citizen input and provide feedback, and yield data on citizens’ needs.

The underlying framework is an “engagement ladder” for placing particular methods, depending on whether they are suited to: providing

– information;

– consultation;

– co-production;

– or co-decision.

Examples of users so far related to climate change –

A local government group in France used the platform to help flesh out a six-year climate action plan, starting with a survey to compile ideas. The platform designed for this initiative included a mapping tool so possible projects could be placed within the relevant region. This is particularly useful for thinking about location-specific projects like cycling infrastructure. A competition with a modest sum at stake to support winning projects helped encourage participation.

Another example comes from the Youth for Climate Movement, whose Brussels branch sought an online engagement tool to help co-ordinate a scattered movement.

Again this was a tool for submitting, commenting, and voting on, ideas, with submissions running into the thousands. This calls for well-designed data analysis and visualisation to allow easy navigation of the whole set, view themes and common features of the submissions, who voted and how.

Their latest offering is an online workshop platform, that combines video, presentations and written input, breakout rooms and plenaries all in one place. It was developed to substitute for offline “town hall” meetings which would normally complement the online work but are not possible under social distancing constraints.

Finally, Beverley Wilson from Cheshire West and Chester Council outlined their work on digital engagement for climate action. Their declaration of a climate emergency came just as work began on a new council plan, which was geared to stronger community involvement.

That led to an exercise billed as Play your part, that ran from October to December last year. This sought citizen views on the challenges and opportunities of the next four years, with climate prominent among them.

The exercise combined an online platform – Engagement HQ, by Bang the Table, costing the Council around £12k p.a. – similar to CitizenLab’s offering with (pre-lockdown, this) a “paper toolkit” suitable for use in community venues.

Online tools included a survey, helpful for those who didn’t necessarily want to provide original input, and an online “Question time” event.

Quick polls served to help draw people in, providing a useful hook on social media. There was one other useful success: “The thing that really took off was the ideas board”. This offered an interactive space to upload ideas – the space could also accommodate comments but commenting was turned off at this stage to avoid critical responses deterring contributors.

The process was then abruptly curtailed by pre-election purdah, after 56 ideas were logged in 2 weeks. But it was successful up to that point, underpinned by a communications and social media campaign to spread the word, and a combination of a simple sign-in and strong moderation on the site to ensure it was a safe space for participants. It is then important to feed back results as they accumulate, to help build confidence in the process.

That consultation is now over, but a current exercise, Stronger Futures – available for inspection here, looks at how best to manage COVID impacts. Another maps submitted ideas for improving cycling and walking in the area. These have drawn hundreds of responses in a relatively short time so far.

In discussion, the caution emerged that this is all good, but there can obviously be issues with expectation of responses to online invitations. They include highlighting ideas that the council in question does not find politically acceptable, which risks disillusion with supposed aids to democratic discussion; lack of resources to implement schemes that the public proposed that; and even lacking resources to examine and assess them if there are too many (cycling improvements being an example of this in some authorities). This raises a further communication imperative, to explain clearly that not everything can be done…