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10 Commandments for Online Engagement

Posted on April 15, 2019


This guest post is from Amanda Nagl of Bang the Table

Book pages


Use these ten tips like an online engagement Bible and reap the rewards of better-designed projects; a more informed community who provides usable feedback.

 1. Thou shalt not use jargon.

All fields create their own language, no one is impressed by it anymore.  Avoid acronyms and unfamiliar terms.  Proof your work by having someone not connected to government, or at least your department, read through your projects and make sure that the questions you are asking and the information you provide use common terms. City of Tigard, Jargon-Free Budget Talk

 2. Thou shalt provide options for visual feedback—images and videos.

We no longer provide information to the public in text-only format.  We use rich media–video and images to tell our stories.  Allow the public to do the same.  Rather than asking for descriptions of buildings, allow the public to show pictures of what they like and highlight the features that made them choose the image.  You’ll both understand more clearly. City of Boulder, Transportation Master Plan

 3. Thou shalt capture the past lest it halt your project and the project after that.

Areas undergoing transition first require a celebration and recognition.  Jumping into what is new and possible leaves much of the public behind, and angry.  Ask for stories, images, and video to capture what is special about a place–more story.  Once you’ve done this, look at ways to weave the past into the future and the community may be more willing to begin to imagine the future, with you.

 4. Thou shalt use a variety of tools; chosen for solid, defensible reasons.

Tools are now too plentiful for one tool to suffice as community engagement.  Survey alone will not stand up to scrutiny–it is too easy to discredit even the most thoughtful one.  It must be described as a part of a comprehensive and strategic engagement strategy.  Use a variety of tools that gather different types of data and target different groups. Town of Vail, Civic Area Plan

 5. Thou shalt use mapping tools for spatial sake and spatial sake alone.

Mapping tools are great–they allow for multiple layers of data collection and are fun for many to use and they make reporting easy.  Just be sure that if you use a place-based tool that your question is place-based.  In other words, if you are asking the public to drop a pin, make sure the pin has some significance. Town of Truckee, General Plan

 6. Thou shalt phase the project in a meaningful way; honor the phases before it.

Phases can become a term we use to change directions if we are not very careful.  For those following, it can become a trust diversion.  Map your projects via a timeline from the beginning and post it alongside all engagement.  Show the community where you are, where you have been and where you are going.  Tell them why, whenever possible.  Use videos and documents to chronicle the journey, pulling out bullets and summaries when possible to make it easy to follow along. Broomfield Community Center Lifecycle

 7. Thou shalt work in bite-size, digestible chunks.

The large pdf documents with all the details are critical–they must be accessible for full transparency but the reality is that very few are going to read them.  To make information accessible to the public, you have to pull it out and provide it in bullets or an infographic.  Videos less than two minutes are mission critical as a pull-out from your three-hour meetings. City of Olympia, Homeless Response Plan

 8. Thou shalt collect demographic data along with project feedback.

Online tools make it easy to slice and dice your data based on the demographics of those that provide it.  If you don’t ask, though, you lose all the options.  Think about the questions elected officials ask–did you hear from x, y or z?   Then ask demographic questions to help you answer.

9.  Thou shalt use social media wisely.

Social media is not an engagement tool.  Use it to inform people and drive them to your engagement site where you can measure input and easily report.  Do not post off-topic social media embeds next to project-specific information and questions.  Your audience will leave you for the more interesting pop-up, every time.

10. Thou shalt always close the feedback loop.

Step one–thank the public.  Step two–archive your projects.  Step three–report your overall findings and the decision that was made, no matter how long this process takes.  Closing the feedback loop will assure more participation in the future as it builds trust with the community and validates their time. City of Arvada, Community Visioning

The Golden Rule of Engagement:  Have Fun! 

Remember that the public is made up of people, just like you!  We all want to enjoy our place in the world.  Use tools creatively to encourage fun and celebration. Host the fun next to the serious and you’ll reap even more rewards with less polarized engagements. City of Lakewood, Colorado 50th Birthday


Amanda Nagl

Amanda Nagl, US Practice Lead, Bang the Table and Sandrine Thibeault, Director, Town Planning and Urban Design Collaborative will apply these commandments directly to planning practice in a session at APA on April 16.  If you are not making the trip, they will have a podcast available, by the end of the month.

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