Engaging Alone, Together

Posted on December 2, 2020

Woman wearing a mask, looking off into the distance, on a street with a car in the background.

Guest post brought to you by Bang the Table’s Meghan Ruble, Head of Client Services


What a year. If you’re fortunate enough to be healthy and employed, you’re likely doing three people’s jobs. Your work has pivoted and sprinted, and at times come to a complete standstill. You innovated, but mostly because you had to – after spending countless 12-hour days doing crisis communications while being completely unable to engage your communities the way you normally would.  

And yet, amidst all of this chaos and uncertainty, it has been a relatively good year for community engagement – Lots of people have noticed their processes and results have improved. A vaccine will bring back hugs, concerts and public meetings, but it won’t allow you to go back to business as usual. You can’t put that nimble cat back in the box – it just won’t go – so don’t let any glimmer of normalcy stop you from staying curious, creative and responsive. How can you keep this same type of scrappy mindset when there’s no crisis?

The cities, towns and organizations that, in addition to becoming a public heath response team, continued the work they had set out to do in 2020 saw some pretty astonishing things happen. People showed real interest in continuing the work of keeping their communities going, and showed up in earnest to take online surveys, give feedback over email, or participate in a public comment session over Zoom. I heard a story out of New York City where residents waited more than three hours to comment on a virtual meeting that stretched into the late evening. While Zoom fatigue is real, and the last thing most of us want to do in our free time is look at another screen, the appetite for connection and participation remains. 

One of this year’s earliest success stories came in April 2020, when a school district in Colorado mobilized to launch a “Safe Return to School” survey in about 24 hours. This ability to be brave and responsive instead of planning for perfection allowed the district to capture attention and feedback while the issue was pressing, resulting in thousands of pieces of community input. 

At the same time, we saw governments making on the fly decisions and abandoning processes that no longer served their efforts. We also saw some creative solutioning around the digital divide. How are we meant to engage residents whose only means of internet connection is a pay-per-gig mobile plan? Or communities who don’t have smartphones? One city in Washington State set up a dedicated feedback line at City Hall, with a rotating set of prompts so that residents could call in and give public comment via voicemail if they didn’t have the resources to participate otherwise. Brilliant!

What would your work in the coming year look like if your organization acted when you saw an opportunity to engage, instead of gathering a meeting to talk about putting together a framework? Planning to plan can be an engagement killer, particularly in local governments. Staff spends so much time meeting and iterating in the name of risk mitigation that by the time they’re finally ready to do the work, their community has already had the discussion, made up their minds and moved on without them.  

Time for some real talk: I’ve grown pretty tired of people and organizations trying the same old outdated engagement processes to paltry results, and then tossing their hands up and saying “people must not be interested.” Over time, this apathy loop begins to look intentional, and the last thing anyone wants to be caught doing in 2021 is being purposefully exclusionary. 

Continue to keep bravely trying new things in the coming year, not in the name of any pandemic but in an effort to learn what meaningful engagement looks like to your community. If we can’t be brave and human and make mistakes in this, our wildest year on earth, when will we ever be allowed to? Let’s encourage each other to further lean into the rapid modernization of systems and processes that, in just six short months, have undone decades of organizational traffic jams. We’ll never be able to return to those relics, so you might as well start to get curious about what next looks like now.

Meghan Ruble headshot
Meghan Ruble, Head of Client Services for Bang the Table


If I haven’t scared you off at this point, join me for a conversation about the future of Community Engagement at 11 a.m. MST on Friday, December 18th. You can reserve your free spot (yes, on Zoom) here. Until then, take care!

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