A few weeks ago, I started to notice some commonality across conversations from community engagement practitioners around the world, largely centered around despair. The sentiments were generally, “My work is on hold indefinitely. How can we go on engaging when the world is on fire?”
At the very same time, we at Bang the Table are seeing a wave of tremendously powerful work on engagement sites around the world, centered on connectivity, real-time information, and community support. The message seems clear – resist the urge to step away from conversations and instead choose to adapt. Agencies who chose to be nimble and responsive are seeing higher levels of awareness and engagement from their communities than if they had spent months perfecting a plan.
COVID-19 or not, plans still need to be drafted and passed, along with all of the other “business as usual” work that will continue to happen during this not-so-usual time. Government agencies are continuing to plan and implement, and many of you in local government are headed into budget season. There is tremendous opportunity for education around the work you are doing that is not COVID-related, because it is reasonable for your residents to think your entire agency has turned into a disaster response team. Additionally, all of those community members you have been chasing for years that were too busy to attend public meetings or sign up for your engagement site are now at home, in front of their computers, seeking connectivity and purpose. Go to them.
Most of us have been in some stage of quarantine for five or more weeks, and many of your community members are more in a headspace to engage than ever before. This is not to minimize or discount the grief, trauma and fear that is pervasive in our daily lives, but to note that public servants can begin to build trusting relationships through thoughtful engagement at this moment in time.
Find a way to be a community-oriented hub, like Brampton, Mercer Island, Edina and Innisfill have. Show residents that you are still working on the things you committed to work on, as the District of Lunenburg is doing. Get agile like Maple Ridge – Pitt Meadows School District, who recognized an opportunity to assess the childcare needs of their essential workers, and got a survey out to the community within four days — a survey that resulted in thousands of points of critical feedback.
This is not the time to begin life changing conversations with your communities, but perhaps your best opportunity to abandon the idea of an “everything in its right place” approach to engagement. What do we gain when we throw the steering wheel out the window? Humility, of course. Mistakes. But also the opportunity to find real depth and meaning, and learn about your community in ways you could never have engineered before or after.
If you want to get started but are not sure how, here are some of the safer ways to wade into the online engagement space today: Ask neighbors to share ideas for staving off boredom, send virtual thank you notes to essential workers, or drop pins on maps to help families out on walks find teddy bears in windows, beautiful gardens and interesting architecture. Collect stories of local people doing extraordinary things, or crowdsource a list of businesses who are still open for takeout, delivery or other services. There are many opportunities out there, and stories begging to be told, but you have to be brave enough to ask.
If you would like to see more examples of engagement during COVID-19 and talk about what agility and humility looks like in the online space, join us for our next webinar: Don’t Despair – Engage! May 28th, 11 a.m. MST. Register Here.
Existing Business Manager at Bang the Table
Meghan Ruble, Existing Business Manager for Bang the Table and former Marketing Supervisor for City of Lakewood. Meghan joined the Bang the Table team after five years working at the local government level. Her experience managing a municipal marketing and communications team left her very familiar with the challenges agencies face when planning and running community engagement projects. She is based in New York City.