Virtual Engagement Catalyzed by COVID-19

Maintaining Credibility – Being Creative and Adaptive – Remaining Vigilant

Public Engagement has radically changed in the last few months, likely never returning to pre-COVID practices. Already a growing trend, virtual public and stakeholder engagement accelerated at warp speed to keep projects, public policy and community services in motion. 

With foundational commitments to genuine engagement, client success, continuous learning, and being nimble and adaptive, CDR ramped up its approach to virtual engagement expanding technological abilities and applying best practices. Pausing to reflect on the last few months and considering our collective future, we are offering lessons learned and both cautions and hopes for the future of engagement. 

Maintaining Credibility in Public and Stakeholder Engagement

Successful virtual engagement is occurring across the spectrum of projects we’ve been working on in transportation, water and land management. Already adding virtual tools to our engagement toolbox, CDR was poised to rapidly transition support to our clients on current and new projects. Hundreds of people have provided input to Colorado’s State Highway 52 planning project through multiple virtual engagement platforms. Dozens of partner representatives from across the State of Colorado effectively engaged in ratifying partner protocols and developing a vision and objectives for Fishers Peak, Colorado’s next state park. FedNet utilizes video conferencing to foster understanding and improving relationships. The Wildlife & Transportation Alliance has used virtual forums to expand understanding and address sticky issues.

Being Creative and Adaptive is Essential in our Changing Environment Adapting to New Realities Through Technology, Honoring Proven Concepts in Engagement

With an ethic of supporting genuine community engagement, CDR’s clients have maintained or strengthened the credibility of public projects by continuing to connect with community members through creative means. Using new tools in the toolbox requires just as much, if not more, time and effort to genuinely engage people in deliberations. We’ve made observations ranging from tactical needs to social dynamics in recent months. A sampling of practical and tactical advice for facilitating large groups includes:

  • Advance homework and/or surveys help orient participants, mitigating the need for long presentations 
  • Preparing “virtual rooms” is just as important as preparing for “in-person rooms” – prepare a virtual room by making sure the technology works, participants know how to use technology, virtual strategies and tools are tested, etc. 
  • “Breakout” rooms are your friend – have a co-host who can support conversation and summarize outcomes 
  • Shared documents – either being revised in real time, or participants modifying themselves – demonstrates listening and shaping content by constituents 
  • A Facilitation Buddy System – Managing chat functions, sorting participants into rooms, managing documents, capturing input and facilitating discussion requires more than one facilitator. Larger groups may need multiple facilitators for efficient, effective management 
  • Use a variety of tools to help people offer perspective – options such as polling, Social Pinpoint, sticky note simulators and others provide avenues for people who might be more comfortable participating in ways other than speaking 
  • Incorporate Breaks – Virtual engagement is exhausting – in some cases we are seeing people go from Virtual meeting to Virtual meeting – only there are no natural breaks – such as walking, riding or driving between meetings. Schedule breaks every hour, ask participants to walk around the block, get a snack and get away from the computer for 10 minutes. 
  • Continued Non-Tech Strategies – hard-to-reach populations still need mail-in/phone surveys, informational mailers, working with community leaders with existing relationships and communication avenues, with translation services supporting all 
  • Off-Line Check-Ins – During in person engagement, facilitators and client leads can have side conversations to check in and adjust processes and agendas in real time. Set up other platforms to check in mid-meeting to make those course corrections. 
  • All Ages are Participating – We have seen all ages up their game in use of technology. 
  • It Requires Time and Effort – There might be misperceptions that virtual engagement requires less time and work to implement. Our experience demonstrates that it takes just as much time and effort, if not more, as in-person engagement! 
  • Keep Learning – As we learn from and have access to new engagement techniques and technology, observe what is working and what isn’t and apply key take-aways to next sessions.

Remaining Vigilant About Genuine Engagement and Implications for Our Future  

Intentional action is required to foster genuine engagement across communities and partnerships. There is risk to simply “checking the box” to meet minimum requirements for public process. We are asking ourselves questions and raising concerns to remain vigilant: 

  • Are there populations and geographic regions we are missing because of non-existent or unreliable access to technology? 
  • Are we using the current COVID-19 environment as an excuse to not engage with community? 
  • Are our translation services applied in the right places and the right way? 
  • Are relationships suffering because there is nothing that can truly replace in-person engagement? 
  • As communities and states reopen, how do we transition and synthesize the effective, efficient technological engagement strategies that have made such positive advancements with re-emerging in-person opportunities? 

We hope we can all continue to challenge ourselves to “meet the community where they are” during this challenging time. With an intention of employing genuine engagement opportunities we can achieve quality policy, project and community deliberation. Technology can help advance this type of engagement if supported by decision makers and implemented well. We miss people… we want to see them again… and when we can do so safely, we will be ready to do so with a renewed appreciation for in-person relationship building and a refined, improved approach to how we do this important work virtually.