Addressing the unintended consequences of online engagement

As Victorians hunker down under necessary COVID-19 restrictions and the rest of the country keeps an eye out for what may be on the horizon for them, it looks like engagement processes delivered online without any face-to-face activities are here to stay.

Online engagement is an important way to ensure affected communities continue to have the opportunity to provide feedback on the projects and decisions that will impact them, and that meaningful community conversations aren’t put on hold.  

It’s a really powerful mechanism to keep community engagement processes moving, attract participation and collect community feedback that informs decision-making when we can’t meet face-to-face. 

The opportunities and challenges of digital engagement

Despite its efficacy during COVID-19 lockdowns and physical distancing, there are some significant issues that need to be actively addressed for online engagement to deliver the benefits and opportunities we need and expect 

Some of these issues are well publicised and understood. They relate to equity of access. Not all community members are connected to the internet (due to financial constraints/cost impacts) and some regional communities have poor and/or unreliable connections. Other barriers to access can include language, disability, or levels of literacy.  

Another issue affecting the outcomes of online engagement is equally important but perhaps less well understood. It’s an issue that affects all engagement processes but one that is exacerbated by the current focus on online delivery – who ‘self-selects’ to participate and who doesn’t. 


"We need to actively seek out, invite and encourage participation from the full spectrum of community members to ensure we have a genuine understanding of what our communities really think."

Nicola Wass

Director - Communications and Engagement


The self-selection bias

Generally speaking, people who self-select to participate in community engagement activities are those who are negatively motivated (opposed to what is being proposed) and those who have strong views or interests in the matter being discussed 

There’s no question that it is important for these community members to share their views and be heard – indeed their contribution is necessary if we are going to understand the breadth of community opinion –but they are only one part of the picture. 

Community members who have less emphatic and more neutral views are not as driven to participate in self-select engagement activities. This lack of motivation to participate in self-select activities means their views and priorities are not being heard or considered in decision-making, and that our understanding of community perspectives remains incomplete 

Those who feel disenfranchised and disempowered are also missing. This often includes younger people, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, people with disabilities, vulnerable community members and those from diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds. 

Accounting for the data skew

We need to actively seek out, invite and encourage participation from the full spectrum of community members to ensure we have a genuine understanding of what our communities really think.  

Designing engagement programs that include a combination of self-select and randomly selected activities is key to this, as is providing support to those community cohorts that need it to ensure they have an equitable opportunity to participate in an effective and meaningful way.

Robust, defensible engagement processes are designed so that they actively seek out, invite and support the involvement of representative cross-section of the community. This ensures we receive feedback that genuinely reflects the range of community views, and not just those with the loudest or angriest voices, to inform project development and decision-making. 

Engagement for everyone

As our current situation powerfully demonstrates, we are all affected by what goes on around us. Government decisions impact everyone. Now more than ever engagement practitioners need to design engagement processes that reach and involve a representative sample of the community and not just those with easy access to the internet, strong views or a special interest.  

By actively planning for both self-selected and randomly selected participants in our engagement processes we can ensure the outcomes of engagement genuinely reflect the nuanced spectrum of views that exist across our community and support better, more equitable decision-making.  

At RPS we work with you to make complex easy – so get in touch to find out how you can ensure you are reaching and hearing the nuanced views of your community. 

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