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Community engagement in the age of COVID-19

Over the last 12-18 months, governments have committed more money than ever to infrastructure in an effort to stimulate the economy.

06 December 2021 | 1 min read
Emma Wiggan

Asia Pacific

Australia

Melbourne

ON THIS PAGE
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There are hundreds of important projects and investments in the pipeline, and this means there's a lot to communicate and consult with the community about. But COVID-19 restrictions have had a huge impact on how we approach our work as engagement consultants.

Standard community engagement approaches and processes have been flipped on their head. And while it’s certainly been a challenge to connect with communities, we’ve also learned a lot.

Here are some of the things I’ve learned from my work on community engagement programs for major infrastructure projects in the age of COVID-19.

Creating space for conversation in the zeros and ones

For one of the major projects I was working on before the pandemic hit we were holding monthly meetings with local community groups. This was an in-person deal. There was little in the way of online or digital engagement, either in practice or in planning. There didn’t appear to be a need.

Victoria’s continuing lockdowns quickly made in-person meetings impossible, so we made the shift to online meetings and community forums. In the beginning, these online meetings took the form of webinars, with open-forum meetings for the general community, and slightly more tailored meetings for industry representatives.

While the client had an existing corporate website, it lacked the digital infrastructure to support genuine two-way conversations that successful engagement both fosters, and benefits from.

Knowing how important meaningful community conversations are for a project’s design, social license and ultimate approval, we set about expanding the client’s digital toolkit to facilitate deeper engagement experiences online.

Last I checked the platform we helped to develop had more than 7,000 views and 140 followers. These numbers, and the insights we are gaining from community members prove that people care more than ever about the things going on in their local area.

They want to have their say – we just need to make space for it in the digital sphere.

Woman using phone while waiting on railway platform

Avoiding the pitfalls of digital-only engagement

While digital forms of engagement are absolutely necessary in a time when face-to-face interaction is limited, making digital engagement personal, and securing a personal response can be a real challenge in the digital realm.

More traditional methods of engagement like community pop-ups allow people to voice their thoughts and concerns in a much more personal and detailed way, which they may not feel comfortable doing in a group setting. That’s why building in direct contact avenues is really important when you go digital.

While a project hotline or email address will never replace face-to-face, they keep the door open for more personal one-on-one conversations. 

Emma Wiggan, RPS communications and engagement consultant is standing in front of the Yarra River and Princes bridge with Melbourne CBD in the background.

Digital approaches can allow for a larger audience, but this tends to expose another challenge—reaching a broad cross-section of the community.

While the opportunities to engage on projects are always advertised widely, there are always members of the target audience who aren’t digitally savvy, and “louder” voices can dominate digital debate just as much as they do in person.

Investing more strongly in a project’s social media presence is a key strategy that we are working through with clients in terms of drawing diverse members of the community into the conversation and inviting broader participation. Social media platforms are a powerful opportunity to seek out diverse views via targeted, criteria-led advertising and segmentation (age, interests etc).

While our quest to perfect digital engagement and draw a representative sample of participants into project conversations isn’t over, the need to moderate discussions well and provide quality engagement experiences has certainly been reinforced as we’ve pivoted digital.

Engaging with typically underrepresented groups

One thing that we have learned through taking so much of our project engagement activity online is that digital engagement can help you connect with people you might otherwise have missed.

Digital forums are a lot more suitable for people with full-time jobs and kids as they are able to take part from the comfort of their own home instead of having to travel at night to an in-person community forum. The ability to simply sit down at a computer and tune in from home is more accessible and lowers the barriers to participation.

Even as in-person meetings resume, we have found that a large segment of our target audience prefers to participate online. In many cases, we are continuing to run online meetings in tandem with the traditional in-person format.

While COVID may have disrupted community engagement and created new challenges, it’s also revealed some exciting opportunities.

As we continue to engage on Victoria's huge pipeline of infrastructure and other projects, we're more equipped than ever to blend the best of both engagement worlds...digital and face-to-face.