7 Emerging Tips for Equitable Digital Engagement
The following article was published by The American Planning Association on May 13, 2020.
This spring, work changed overnight as governments mandated stay-at-home orders and offices went virtual. For planners long dependent on public meetings and community engagement, this has presented its own set of challenges — especially when it comes to equity. With around 19 million Americans still lacking broadband access and face-to-face outreach on hold, the digital divide has never seemed wider.
Here's a look at some of the ways planners and local leaders are keeping engagement efforts inclusive, even while social distancing.
1. Make sure you're mobile compatible.
The pandemic moved too fast to expand broadband access in preparation for social distancing, but people without connections at home might still be online, says Eric Frederick, AICP, vice president of community affairs at Connected Nation, a rural internet accessibility advocacy organization. According to Pew Research Center, 81 percent of Americans currently own a smartphone. That means it's imperative that all digital outreach efforts are mobile app compatible, Frederick says. He also suggests making mobile hotspots available to residents to supplement mobile phone internet services.
2. Manage expectations.
Chicago Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa advocates standardizing public engagement practices — whether in person or virtual — so stakeholders always know what to expect and will feel more comfortable about participating. "That is really important for us," he says. "People can say, 'I know how this works, that I can attend the meeting, that my presence there will be impactful, and I have a sense of what is going to occur.'" Since his office started this practice, residents have become more engaged in local planning, he says.
3. Overcome the in-person bias.
Sometimes feedback from digital communications is taken less seriously, says Deb Meihoff, AICP, principal and owner of the Portland, Oregon-based consulting firm Communitas. But while a lack of face-to-face contact might make participation feel less engaged, digital communications are no less genuine, she says. And for some community members, like people living with disabilities, digital platforms have always been easier to use. With more work being done virtually, Meihoff hopes planners can lose their prejudices against digital participation to allow for expanded use, now and in the future.
4. Crowdsource solutions.
Alderman Ramirez-Rosa suggests using your community's best resource: the people living in it. He's spent two terms working to make public participation more equitable, but the sudden need to go digital has thrown much of that past work out the window. During his first virtual meeting, he found that one of the biggest issues was providing live translations — a necessity for the Spanish speakers in his constituency. "We are going to bring this to our community group and ask their opinion," he says, because they might already be familiar with translation tools and practices his office has yet to test.
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