Think the Government Doesn’t Care About Your Opinions? Wrong!

Are Community Engagement Panels the Way of the Future?

Not the most fun way to spend your evening! The City of Edmonton offers an alternative for community engagement.

Not the most fun way to spend your evening. The City of Edmonton now offers an alternative for community engagement.

I think it is great that our government wants to engage with the community and holds consultation meetings before making major decisions, I really do.

I care about my community. A lot.

But even so, I have to confess that I’ve never actually gone to one of those community consultation meetings.

I’ve thought about it, many times.

But when the evening comes and it is 25 below zero outside, who wants to leave a nice cozy living room to go sit in a community hall or school gym and listen to neighbours rant? Or if it is 25 above (Celsius. That’s 77 Fahrenheit, for my American readers) I’d far rather be out for a bike ride with my family.

Well, the City of Edmonton realized that, while there’s clearly a place for in-person meetings when it comes to community engagement, they needed a way to engage more of us. So a couple of years ago they started building the Edmonton Insight Community.

At a recent meeting of the Marketing Research & Intelligence Association (MRIA), the City of Edmonton’s Manager of Corporate Research, Mark Boulter, came to engage with the marketing research community, and tell us how they built their panel, which now has some 7,000 members, who have completed a total of about 120,000 surveys!

Today’s podcast episode is an interview I did with Boulter after that meeting.

Advice for Building a Community Engagement Panel

1. Start an e-mail list!

Don’t wait till you know for sure that you’re going to have such a panel. Boulter credits his predecessor with having had the foresight to start collecting e-mail addresses at events long before they knew they were going to create such a panel. That really helped the panel get off to a good start.

2. Meet with every community group you can think of.

If you don’t have an e-mail list, you’ll have to start here. Even if you do have a list, you want to spend lots of time engaging with local community groups so they understand what you are trying to do and its value, and are willing to encourage their members to join.

3. List the engagement panel’s sign-up URL on every government communication.

Boulter noted that the City also leveraged its 311 city information hotline, letting callers know about this opportunity to have ongoing input into City decisions.

4. Do localized mail drops when needed.

When an issue is coming up that will affect one specific community, they will sometimes do a physical mailing to people in that neighbourhood to invite them to join the panel.

5. Give prompt feedback on what you are doing about members’ suggestions.

One of the fastest ways to turn people off is to ask for feedback and then ignore it. Engagement is a 2-way street. People who are volunteering their time like this want to know that they are having an impact.

6. Don’t pay participants, but sometimes have celebratory events.

Luckily, enough people care about their city that they are willing to volunteer their time to give you detailed feedback and insights. Paying them would not only make such a panel unaffordable, it would actually diminish participants’ commitment. Ask any psychologist: intrinsic motivation is always more powerful than external rewards.

That said, Boulter did note that sometimes they do offer the panelists a chance to participate in a live event. That, of course, strengthens the bonds even more (for those who choose to come).

City of Edmonton Insight Community: Community Engagement from the comfort of your home!

City of Edmonton Insight Community: Community Engagement from the comfort of your home!

7. Make input fun!

Don’t just use standard, dry, text-only surveys. Use imagery. Experiment with new tools and creative ways to get input.

For example, they have a tool that lets users highlight and mark-up documents. When they’d heard complaints that a standard form was confusing and off-putting, they got the panel to go through the form, highlighting the areas or words that they found unclear.

Then using heat-map technology, the City was able to see where the most common sources of confusion were.

They were able to revise the document and send it back out to the panel to make sure the new document communicated well, before launching it publicly.

They are also looking at ideas such as using augmented reality tools to let panelists “see” what a proposed new development would look like.

Biggest Challenge?

Dealing with complaints that it is a biased sample.

They never claimed that it was a statistically valid equivalent to a well-balanced telephone market research survey. It is about getting insights with much more depth and richness than you can get in a typical phone survey.

It’s kind of like a focus group on steroids!

And, as with a good focus group, it can help you identify areas that may need more formal market research surveys.

It also, especially now that it has grown so big, often gets far more responses than the City could justify paying for with a telephone survey.

Over time, the panel is creating an ever-richer database of information on the participants, so that it becomes possible to dig within the panel and invite relevant sub-groups to participate in specific surveys.

For example, if you are thinking about making a change in one community that will have a particular impact on parents of young children, you can find those people in your database and reach out to them directly.

The ongoing nature of the panel also means that the City can track what impact it is having; how attitudes among the same people are changing over time. This something you wouldn’t be able to get from a standard sample-based survey.

If you want to learn more about improving citizen service, check out my interview with Donna Crooks, who was then Strategic Advisor for Citizen Service, for the Government of Saskatchewen.

And if you are interested in learning more about customer insight panels, listen to my interview with Renee Racine Kinnear, who was then the VP of customer experience for digital channels at Indigo Books.

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