What’s the best tool to use for community consultation?

With the explosion of interest in community engagement and the continued emergence of new tools to assist with the process, by far the most common question I hear from my clients is “What tool should I use for my consultation or to engage my community?”

Unfortunately there isn’t a simple answer. There are many digital tools that help with engagement (I’ve coined the term “engagetech” to describe them all), with many different applications and uses. In the NZ Online Engagement Guidance I shared details of the ParticipateDB, a website which hosts the most comprehensive list of products available, both open source and Software as a Service (SaaS). However different tools are designed to meet very different needs and it’s sometimes not easy to make sense of what’s available.

engagetech-spectrum-2015_and-logo

The best place to start is with a focus on your specific engagement purpose. The EngageTech spectrum has been designed to help you match your purpose or level of engagement on the IAP2 spectrum to the types of tools available. It defines the various categories of engagement technology – to help you make sense of the tools available.

I have been road-testing the spectrum and it’s categories as I evaluate products and with technology providers, IT teams and engagement specialists here, in Australia and in North America, Europe and New Zealand. Not every tool fits into the categories neatly, but overall the feedback on these categories and the usefulness of the spectrum has been overwhelmingly good. Learn more about and download the spectrum here.

My company, engage2 also runs an event series called EngageTech which profiles tools at all levels on the spectrum and gives those working with them, or looking for tools an opportunity to share notes.

So assuming you have a clear definition of your purpose and the spectrum works for you, the next step is choosing the right tool for the task is to clearly define your requirements. This is an essential step that is often overlooked. You may already have some in house solutions or tools you have previously used, but if they do not match your requirements, both the efficiency and effectiveness of your engagement process will be hindered

The key requirements to consider are your engagement objectives:

  • What information do you have to share and how would you like to present it?
  • How do you want users to participate when they engage with you online
  • Do you want participants to be able to engage with each other or just provide input?
  • Are you expecting them to read content before participating or simply share existing ideas and opinions?
  • Are you consulting or engaging?
  • Is your need short term or long term?
  • Will you be collecting personal data so you can contact participants again?
  • How will you track and report issues as input is collected?
  • Do you need the tool to analyse and report the data for you or will you use another tool to analyse feedback and submissions?

Your organisation will also have requirements. Your communications and IT team will want to know:

  • Does the tool meet your security and risk management requirements?
  • How will you brand the tool, and how will it work with your website?
  • Will you be able to update content in the tool yourself or will you require their services or the product providers assistance?

Your privacy and records management teams will also want some reassurance that you are gathering appropriate consent from participants and have considered appropriate governance and information management approaches given these tools collect personal data.

In my experience, IT teams often question the use of “external” tools and will advocate that current software or web tools can be used. They may be predisposed to building their own solution and most will have a position about open source software versus Software as a Service (SaaS). Their greatest fears are usually to do with online security and risk.

While that is understandable, the solution they offer may not meet your engagement needs. Having a clear list of specific requirements is the best solution to demonstrating what type of tools you need for your engagement and how you will use them. In the NZ Online Engagement Guidance I shared some questions that will help you gathering requirements and configuring tools to meet your needs.

Above all, an important consideration for choosing an “off the shelf” product, apart from time, is that most of the developers of these tools have worked, or are working with multiple project teams and understand the various uses of their products better than anyone. In comparison, Open Source products are free but often require customisation to meet needs which means comparing these solutions with the time that needs to be invested by your IT (and their availability) or the cost of developers to configure these tools, which is hard to measure without understanding both the tool and how it will meet you requirements intimately.

Having clarified your requirements, I recommend putting together a short list of the products that appear to meet your needs. I urge caution in making sure that the tool you think will meet your needs actually does. Most EngageTech products are sold on the basis of marketing materials and a one-hour demo. In a demo we always see the best of a tool. Technology salesmen are amazing at speaking to features, some are good at highlighting benefits, but it can be hard to really get a feel for what a tool will be like.

So when you have a shortlist, ask around. Most people in the industry have tried one or more online engagement tools by now. Ask them about their experience with the tool and the provider. And ask the provider how they will help you use the tool – what training, services and support will they provide. One thing I cannot emphasise enough is that you will never truly understand a product tool until you have tried to set it up, manage it and pull data out of it yourself.

I know that is not the simple answer you were looking for, but I hope that this outline has helped you and your team to start looking into what you need.

If you would like to discuss approaches or to get help gathering requirements for your online engagement please get in touch. In my experience, a facilitated workshop with the right people in the room will ensure you make the right investment and will make a world of difference to your user experience.

You can reach me on +61 411 960585 or by email amelia@engage2.com.au EngageTech Spectrum

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