Has COVID-19 Rebooted the way we do Community Engagement?

Two months ago, moving quickly may have seemed a reasonable response to the suggestion ‘let’s zoom’.

And with the onset of strict social distancing measures at the end of March 2020, we have indeed moved rapidly to not only change the way we live (Australians adhered to social distancing measures 90% of the time according to modelling by the University of Sydney) but to reprogram the way we communicate and work with each other.


Consequently, the use of video conferencing and online collaborative applications surged in March and April. Video conferencing tool Zoom reported daily participants had increased from 10 million in December 2019 to 300 million by the end of April 2020. Collaboration platform Microsoft Teams increased usage by 70% in the six weeks leading up to the end of April, with 75 million daily active users reported. Skype’s daily active users were up 70% to 40 million. (Source: VentureBeat).


With the switch flipped on online communications, the WSP Elton Consulting team also refocused its community and stakeholder engagement offering for the digital world, delivering many online activities for clients in the past eight weeks.


Elton Consulting, a WSP company since November 2019, has been providing professional advisory services including communications and engagement, urban and regional planning, social sustainability and design for more than 30 years. Our combined strengths allow us to provide comprehensive consulting solutions to government, private and community sectors.


What will be the new normal?

As Australia’s social distancing measures are relaxed further in the coming months and life gets back to normal - what will the new normal be when it comes to community and stakeholder engagement?


According to Elton Consulting Project Director Calli Brown, who led the organisation’s digital pivot this year, “Online engagement is here to stay.”


Calli explained that while webinars and online surveys have been happening in the background for the last five years, it is more likely now to become a regular part of the engagement mix, even when social distancing is relaxed.


“Because we’ve all been forced into choosing online engagement, and because there are no other options, people are taking it up,” she said.


“The lack of confidence beforehand – it’s significantly diminished due to circumstances – and those that have embraced online engagement with us, have experienced excellent outcomes.”


Elton Consulting Associate Director Martin Klopper agreed saying that the results achieved in online engagement activities during since March were in some cases better than traditional face-to-face engagement.


He pointed to an online town-hall meeting the firm facilitated for an infrastructure project in inner-city Brisbane. The online session attracted five times more people than previous in-person town hall meetings for the same project.


“People liked that they didn’t lose their whole evening. You can have your dinner cooking in the background. It’s useful for really busy corporate people in the urban context because it provides them with options.


“That client is now saying that it is their preference to do engagement in this way moving forward.”


What about regional engagement?

It’s not only busy inner-city professionals who are likely to sign up to online engagement activities. Communities in regional areas of the Northern Territory were quick to log on during the fourth round of engagement on planning reforms run by Elton Consulting in April 2020.


The previous stages included face-to-face workshops with stakeholders in remote communities of Katherine and Alice Springs. For the April round, Martin and other urban planning specialists delivered eight online workshops for a range of audiences including architects and community members.


“There are significant benefits of online program delivery for regional areas, like in the Northern Territory. Because it is so big and sparsely populated, the time and cost of travelling is not always worthwhile,” said Martin.


In addition to convenience and cost savings on travel, the added functionality of video conferencing platforms which offer online breakout rooms, chat streams, private messages and live polling, add another dimension to the inputs received.


“When it comes to urban and regional planning, it can be hard to capture quantifiable feedback,” said Martin. “For the community online session for the Northern Territory planning reforms, we ran several live polls, which would have been difficult to do during a face-to-face workshop.


“But because people are engaged online, it’s easier to run online polls like this, and the result is you get richer information.


“Another benefit was that participants could submit questions through chat and there is functionality to raise your hand, which doesn’t break the flow of the presentation or ongoing discussion. Questions can be submitted in a very transparent and inclusive way and then dealt with at the appropriate time in the conversation.


“We also allowed private questions. Attendees were able to ask a question directly to the host, anonymously, and then we could address this with the group. This was good for quieter personalities and we can see it being useful for contentious issues or facilitation.”


Connectivity, confidence and security are key

Access to stable and fast internet is critical before undertaking online engagement, particularly for communities in regional areas.


Similarly, there were concerns around privacy and wariness of the online format in general from clients.


“Until they’ve done a session, some clients are concerned that online engagement won’t give the community as much opportunity to be involved,” added Martin.


“We worked very closely with our clients to help them feel comfortable, and they felt a lot more satisfied and confident following the practice session.


“In addition, the way we ran the sessions changed to keep people’s attention. We delivered the presentation in smaller sections and then had a break with feedback, questions and interactive elements to maintain people’s attention before continuing.”


Calli Brown added that, “Preparation, testing and rehearsals with clients was key. When you’ve done the hard-work, it increases your confidence for when the session goes live.” 



What does the future hold?

In the future, Elton Consulting believes including more online options as part of the engagement process will become the norm, but noted it was still important to make information available in multiple ways. Traditional channels like a dedicated phone line, and in hand engagement such as mailing out hard copy updates, still have value because they help ensure equity for those that were not able to engage online.


“Swing by pop-up stands, where you set up in a busy shopping centre on a Saturday morning, are great for random engagement,” explained Martin. “That is the gap in the online space. At the moment this is on pause and it’s missing people who may otherwise be engaged.


“We need to be careful not to rely on online too much. It is a great tool and a great option to get people involved. But there is something about being in a room with someone that we shouldn’t underestimate. That underlying connection with people is still important in the community engagement space.”


Human interaction is top of mind for Elton Consulting. Big infrastructure or projects with complex environmental documents would benefit from a personal online approach and virtual reality in the future.


“People can still get the right one-on-one access to project team members with online engagement,” Calli said.


“Enhanced visuals, even virtual reality online, will make it easier for the community to see what the impacts and benefits are.


“A person showing a building can demonstrate how the shadow would land, how the offsets would work alongside the trees and landscaping. They can all be explained online through enhanced visual functionality and one-on-one explanation.


“There are so many examples where community groups have been justifiably concerned about a development, and once it is there, they love it. Using 3D with human engagement to provide answers to in-depth questions and a visual overview would help enormously to relieve community fears.”


“In addition, using maps – there are several spatial engagement platforms we use today – adds real value. As the technology becomes more accessible, spatial tools make it easier for people to absorb information and understand projects, rather than having to read through a 500-page EIS document.”


The online opportunity

To move forward with more online engagement in the future, it’s important that clients see how online fits with the audience they want to reach.


“Nothing will ever replace a human answering questions,” said Martin. “If we can make that connection between the human and the digital it will help people to move beyond the impacts to the benefits.


“Now we have the ability to deliver more online engagement and show that we did it successfully.


“It’s all about making it easier for the community and the client. Matching the right channels with the audience’s needs and the client’s needs.”


The opportunity post-Covid for online engagement is the expanded toolkit for communications professionals.


Calli concluded, “We will keep doing what we always do. Learn from every engagement experience – refine our techniques based on the experience of the community and our clients.


“For clients who are still sceptical about online engagement, we can assure them that there has never been a better time to jump in.


“People are at home 24/7; they are looking for things to keep them occupied.


“Now is the time to approach clients and support them to do community consultation online, because it gives people the sense that there is still progress being made to make their lives better when the social distancing is eased and to keep projects moving.”.

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