I this guide, we look at common methods that practitioners use to analyze their effectiveness in inclusive and equitable engagement and provide considerations to think about how these can be more effective.
Hello and welcome to our second article on Lessons for Civic Engagement, a 2-part think piece series that explores the intricacies of the experience of getting involved and practical considerations.
If you haven’t already read Part 1: How Relationships Can Change The World (and how you connect with your public), we invite you to take a look. In this article, we explore how relationships should look relative to levels of public participation goals as well as where relationships can be made.
In Part 2, we look at common methods that practitioners use to analyze their effectiveness in inclusive and equitable engagement and provide considerations to think about how these can be more effective.
A Review of Barriers and Opportunities to Inclusive Public Engagement
In our research and report on the barriers to inclusive public engagement, we saw themes across community members and practitioners that are important considerations when thinking about inclusive engagement.
From the community perspective, the major themes discovered are around why people don’t get involved and the experienced barriers to involvement that would otherwise provide an inclusive experience. These are not discrete themes, and in fact, are often nuanced relationships.
The factors explaining why people may not get involved boil down to awareness, time, (dis)trust, and interest. Simply put, people cannot be or are unlikely to be involved if:
- They aren’t aware of the engagement opportunity
- An engagement opportunity occurs outside of somebody’s schedule or availability
- They don’t trust the organization that is holding the engagement
- The issue doesn’t personally impact them
- They have other priorities that require their attention. This is an especially important consideration as it speaks to where a public engagement fits on the spectrum of big social issues that different folks have to deal with, such as systemic racism. Understanding where an engagement fits on this spectrum helps engagement practitioners to more carefully design their engagements to be sensitive to these matters and the people impacted by them.
Tangentially, barriers to effective engagement are:
- Challenges relating to accessibility, including physical, cognitive, cultural, and technological accessibility
- Safety is related to distrust but also speaks to the environments that practitioners foster and how they handle the engagement in ways that may or may not make someone feel unsafe
- The feeling, perception, and realities of inclusivity which tie into both accessibility and safety
From an engagement practitioner’s perspective, the barriers to effective engagement that are experienced include:
- Resourcing of time, money, and personnel
- Equity including how arms of public institutions are provided with the means means to do their work, such as the allocation of funds
Finally, themes around the elements of effective engagement consists of:
- Fostering relationships where people are heard and can engage in tangible collaboration which helps move towards restorative justice and reconciliation
- Transparency including not only how decisions are made, but the real impact that individuals can have in an engagement process
This knowledge is the first step in being able to accomplish more inclusive and effective engagement as it helps us identify problem and opportunity areas. However, the problems can often be abstract and complex, making it difficult to understand where to start. In the following sections, we’ll discuss the guiding principles and practical approaches to help practitioners start to develop their toolkit as they move towards designing effective engagements.
Principles of Equitable Engagement
Before we go into details of practical methods, we want to review some important principles for equitable public engagement. These principles were developed through robust work in collaboration with the community and stakeholders from Simon Fraser University Centre of Dialogue.
- Invite participation within an authentic and accountable engagement process
- Plan early and proactively
- Establish respectful relationships with Indigenous Peoples
- Engage the internal diversity of a community
- Work in a reciprocal relationship with communities
- Tailor engagement plans to the context
- Commit to ongoing learning and improvement
- Advance systemic equity
The principles should be used as guideposts for not only a singular engagement, but a long-term approach to the practice of engagement as a whole, with the understanding that fully living these principles will take both time and effort. As this is transformative work, we must remember that it is a marathon and not a sprint, in order to set our own expectations and maintain morale and tenacity through it all.
Methods Against Barriers and Opportunities
The following section compares a shortlist of methods of engagement against the performance of the previously identified themes around effective engagement. These include questions practitioners should consider to more effectively utilize these methods to reduce barriers and to introduce points to consider when leaning into opportunities.
- Community Contact Lists
- Project Websites
- Social Media
- In-Person Material
- On-site Intercepts
- Large Scale Public Events
- Small Scale Public Events
- Advisory Committees
Community Contact Lists
This is a common method to be able to connect with harder-to-reach communities in engagements that require a larger breadth of participation. As with any method, the execution is what impacts the outcomes.
- Who is on my contact list and does their reach match the demographics of my locale whom I am trying to reach?
- Do I understand which groups and individuals have more reach and influence in the community?
- Do I always engage the same community groups and individuals? Are they being overutilized and others being underutilized?
- If I don’t have a community contact list, how much time can I invest in compiling this, including the research to understand a group or individual’s reach?
- If I already have a community contact list, when was the last time it was updated and how do I maintain its relevance?
Leveraging your local Alliance of Information and Referral Systems group (211.ca in Canada, 2.11.org in the US) can facilitate the building and maintaining of community contact lists. They can connect your organization with community groups that provide services for diverse audiences. For a nominal fee, they can sometimes help you understand which community groups have a stronger presence in your community, so you know which ones are valuable to connect with to begin to do the work.
- Have I invested in the relationship with groups and individuals, or do I just reach out and ask them to amplify your engagement?
- How can I show community groups and individuals how their community can benefit from engaging with me?
Project websites are a standard to be able to provide the public with project information so that they can be informed and access online engagement. With the advent and adoption of the web over the last few decades, information and engagement have become more accessible in some ways, but inaccessible in other ways. Impact around the themes when it comes to project websites include:
- Awareness / Time
- How do more time-independent means of engagement (such as reading information and completing a survey when one is able to) compare with time-dependent means of engagement (such as real-time events)? Does the feedback carry the same weight and how do you demonstrate this?
- Accessibility / Inclusivity / Safety / Relationships
- Does my project website and any digital means of engagement take digital accessibility into consideration? Is it usable by different types of assistive technologies?
- What is the readability level of my content? To extend your reach, aim to write at a grade 8 readability level which will help you target a larger swath of cognitive accessibility. The Hemingway App is a great (and free) tool to be able to detect the readability of your content.
- Can my content be easily translated into different languages?
- Is my language written in an inclusive manner? Beyond inclusive language guides, of which there are many available for free online, there are also AI-powered programs, such as Textio. These can help your team write in an inclusive manner by detecting and providing alternatives for copy that are non-inclusive.
With consideration of accessibility and inclusivity, executing poorly on this method can have impacts on the larger relationship that you have with individuals and segments of the community.
“Did you know that the average reading level of adults living in the United States is between 7th and 8th grade, middle school level? […]People prefer to read about two grade levels below their reading level because it’s more comfortable. When it comes to technical content, a person’s reading level dramatically lowers. They just can’t comprehend the unfamiliar technical vocabulary, complex sentence structure, and buzzwords that have no context to them.” – Free Code Camp
- Transparency / Interest / Trust – What level of insight can you provide on the project on both the contextual information that enables someone to effectively participate and also information on decisions and how they were made?
Project websites can only be as effective as the quality of the website, its content, and its reach. Considering all of the above, it is also important to understand how to supplement these factors.
As an omnipresent channel, social media can play a powerful role in engagement. Not just simply in being able to amplify messaging surrounding an ongoing engagement, but in many other themes.
- Am I able to leverage the digital ad network? This network can facilitate awareness of an engagement that can be targeted to different demographics.
- Am I following best practices in social media posting to target different accessibility needs?
- Am I writing at a grade 8 readability level?
We recommend engagement practitioners to become familiar with best practices for accessibility in social media.
- Inclusivity / Safety
- How high is my competency in inclusive language and dialogue?
- Am I able to account for, respond to, and mitigate others who might create a non-inclusive and unsafe environment?
- Trust / Interest / Relationships –
- Am I able to engage in dialogue with your community? Active dialogue can go a long way in building trust and relationships.
- Does my team have the resources to be able to invest in effective social media communications and engagement? It’s not enough to just share information. In this day and age, there is a high expectation for active and ongoing engagement. This will take time and money.
- What is my team’s competency in content creation and leveraging social media?
In-person material refers to any kind of touchpoint that someone interacts with in the physical world. This can include materials such as direct mail postcards, posters in public spaces, billboards on the street, ads in magazines and newspapers, and so on.
- Do I understand the types of analog mediums that my community resonates with?
- Do I understand where my community physically gathers?
- Accessibility / Inclusivity
- Is my in-person material written inclusively and at a grade 8 reading level?
- Have I considered who doesn’t have access or doesn’t utilize technology to know where my in-person material efforts need to go?
- Do I have the means to create and distribute in-person material?
On-site intercepts can target informing and engaging your public.
- Where do people gather?
- Time / Interest
- How long is my engagement “pitch”? In on-site intercepts, you are catching people in the midst of their daily lives where they have their own schedules to attend to. You will want to keep your interaction flexible so that people are able to engage for as short or as long as they need in order to access information. For this reason it’s important to consider that reaching deeper levels of engagement is not always available with on-site intercepts.
- Accessibility / Inclusivity / Safety
- If the intercept is an engagement, how am I providing this engagement? For example, a QR code to a digital survey would not be accessible to someone who does not have a smartphone.
- Is my on-site team competent in providing an inclusive and safe environment?
- Where are my intercepts? Are they spread out equally and targeting gathering places that equally represent my region?
- Do you have enough staff to be able to run a spread-out series of intercepts?
Large Scale Public Events
Large-scale public events can manifest in different ways. Most commonly, large-scale public events include council meetings, town halls, and public information and/or engagement events.
- How will people become aware of this opportunity? What are the ways that people gather and receive information?
- Am I providing an alternative that provides the same level of participation to someone who cannot access the events as someone who can? For example: how many times would you hold an event? Have you considered multiple dates and times to accommodate people who may have time constraints?
- How will I provide an alternative that provides the same level of participation for those with accessibility needs? Considering physical locations as an example, can someone who has accessibility needs get there easily? For remote events, can someone who relies on assistive technology access and easily navigate the event? If someone is unable to physically attend, how are they able to participate on the same level?
- Inclusivity / Safety
- How am I making sure that all people are aware of an event?
- How can I inclusively interact with people at an event?
- What kind of environment can I proactively create to make people feel safe and seen?
- Do I have enough resourcing to run multiple events?
Small Scale Public Events
Similar to large-scale events, small-scale events can achieve information and engagement goals. Considerations around the themes include all of the aforementioned as in large scale events but can also greatly impact:
- Relationships / Trust – Relationships are able to be forged at deeper levels at small-scale events. Similar to any kind of human dynamic, the smaller the group the more intimate it can become. With this approach to relationship building, we can start to rebuild trust where it might have been lost.
Advisory committees are the method that has the ability to swing in both directions of reducing or contributing to friction points.
- How are people made aware of the opportunities to be a part of an advisory committee?
- What do advisory committees usually look like? Are there always the same people or personas for these committees?
- How much time is expected of someone to serve on a committee?
- Am I able to provide a tangible value exchange for serving on a committee?
- Inclusivity / Safety / Interest
- Are some people unable to serve on a committee due to barriers such as time constraints, level of skill required, etc? How can I provide equal ability for someone who has barriers to be involved?
- Do I have the resources to be able to support an advisory committee?
We recognize that this list is not exhaustive, and is meant to provide an overview of popular engagement methods, especially as we consider how patterns of communication evolve over time. The most important takeaway is that any method of communication and engagement is only as good as your delivery. What you put in will be what you get out. There will never be a perfect way to approach communications and engagement, so it is always about considering all of the friction points and exploring future opportunities in order to live the principles of equitable engagement.