3. Using spaces and channels for participation

Use a variety of spaces and channels to meet people where they are

Many people don’t take part in traditional public meetings because they are held in spaces or at times that aren’t convenient or welcoming. To invite participation from everyone, you should use a variety of spaces and channels to meet people where they are. All forums, whether online or offline, should be accessible, safe, and welcoming.

Using channels effectively

1. Use digital channels as well as offline meetings

Digital channels are important complements to offline meetings because:

  • Residents can participate whenever it is convenient for them.
  • People who can’t physically attend meetings (because of mobility, geography, or work and family constraints) can participate.
  • Young people (who are disproportionately heavy users of digital channels and often underrepresented) are more likely to participate.

Broadcast public meetings and events on digital channels that are easy for your residents to access. Use Twitter to provide real-time text-based updates. New tools like Meerkat and Periscope make it cheap and easy to broadcast live video to the public from a mobile device. Early adopter governments like the City of Philadelphia have already used Meerkat to broadcast events. People who can’t attend the event can still watch the meeting and stay informed.

Use digital participation channels with online video streaming so people can be informed and provide feedback. Promote your livestream with a hashtag for people to use on Twitter or Facebook. Having people participate with the same hashtag will create a conversation that can be found in one place.

Example: How the City of Boulder used Periscope

Unsatisfied with the demographic representation of in-person events, the City of Boulder wanted to offer alternative ways to participate in a speaker panel. With the support of Code for America, the City took this event as an opportunity to use digital tools as a way to help residents participate in the discussion remotely. Seven of the nine City Council members were present and it was important to offer remote participants the same access to elected officials as attending in-person.

The City communications team used Twitter to promote and communicate with residents during the event, Periscope to livestream the event to Twitter users, and SurveyGizmo to conduct two polls, one before the event and one after. Roughly 200 people attended the panel in person, while 636 live viewers logged onto the Periscope live-stream. As a measure of engagement, 225 users “hearted” the Periscope stream. As indicated by the survey results, the demographics of participation online were closer to Boulder’s actual demographics than the attendance at the in-person event.

Read more about this example in the case study.

2. Use the spaces your residents use

Don’t create digital channels on platforms if your residents aren’t using them. Learn about your residents’ digital behaviors by running an online resident survey. Ask questions about how residents access the internet, the devices they use, and the social media platforms they use. Use the survey data to prioritize the digital channels where you should be most active.

Example: Resident Survey in the City of Oakland

In 2014 Code for America and the City of Oakland conducted a survey of 1,000 residents (0.25% of the population) asking how they access the web and their past experiences interacting with the City of Oakland online. From the survey, the City learned that 3.3% of the respondents primarily access the Internet via a mobile device, which informed their decision to make their website mobile-friendly to better serve those residents on the channels they use most.

This also applies to in-person engagement. Use existing spaces instead of creating brand new ones. You can be as or more effective in expanding your reach by taking part in regular community events, instead of creating your own. For example:

  • Participate in a student government meeting to reach more students
  • Participate in a weekend hackathon to reach your local tech community
  • Set up a booth at the farmers market or outside a busy retail location

Meetup.com is also a great place to find existing groups in your community organized by interest. Attending and taking part in Meetup groups can be a very effective way to meet new residents, discover interests, and get feedback. Meetup.com is also a great place to post meetings that your are hosting. The site gets a lot of traffic and posting events here will make them easier to find for a wider range of people. You can see how to post your events to Meetup here.

3. Use tools to meet people where they are

Not everyone will want to attend a public meeting or watch a livestream. Meet people where they are in their physical environment and make it easy for them to take part when it’s convenient for them. There are many tools you can use to engage people as they go about their daily life, including:

  • CityVoice: a place-based call-in system to collect community feedback on places (like vacant properties or public parks) using the telephone.
  • Textizen: a survey tool that uses text messaging to collect feedback about key issues. Read Textizen’s implementation guide to get started.

To get useful feedback, the questions you ask people using these channels is important. Find more information about how to craft a useful survey in the Productive Actions section of this toolkit.

4. Work with community partners to deliver your message

Hearing a message from a trusted voice rather than a stranger or a distant authority figure can make the message much more resonant. Consider developing neighborhood outreach programs like Philadelphia’s 311 Neighborhood Liaison program or Somerville, MA’s program to reach more immigrant residents. These kinds of programs create partnerships with trusted community figures to deliver authentic and relevant messages on your behalf.

Signs of success

You are using channels and spaces successfully when:

  • You are engaging with your residents using online and in-person channels
  • You understand which channels your residents use, and meet them on those channels
  • The kinds of feedback from online and in-person channels is consistent and can be compared