The Covid-19 global pandemic has disrupted planned stakeholder and community engagement programmes and eliminated many of our tactical options, with face-to-face engagement no longer possible during this time of physical distancing.

Engagement with stakeholders is, however, vital to help us make robust decisions throughout the lifecycle of community shaping projects and programmes of work. Beca has employed digital tools for engagement since 2017, with conversational artificial intelligence (AI), virtual reality and 3-D modelling tools providing effective and appealing visualisation and interactive channels for engagement. 

The case for engagement during lockdown:

  • Remain connected with valued stakeholders 
  • Stay true to the core values of public participation 
  • Maintain an organisation’s reputation in the community 
  • Continue to meet delivery programmes, especially for those projects desiring a good level of consultation or collaboration 
  • Provide opportunities for economic and social recovery  
  • Continue shaping communities by connecting projects with people

The options for engagement

Now is the time to transition to digital engagement. This does not mean any less effort to identify and attract your targeted audience. It means more focus on stakeholders – what medium can you engage with them best, offering them a choice in how they might respond  to your ‘call for action’, at a time and space that suits them? There are multiple digital platforms that will support you in this. 

Here are our Top 10 Tips on digital engagement planning, tools and etiquette. 

Top 10 Tips on Digital Engagement 

1. Take time - A more conscientious and measured approach to stakeholder engagement is essential. It may be time to pause, reconsider your engagement tools and timeframes, and reconfirm whether it is appropriate to a) adapt and proceed, or b) postpone, a particular project's engagement plans. 

2. Embrace video conferencing - The current public health related restrictions have seen video conferencing become the new normal. We are embracing this and are continuing to hold 1:1 meetings and group discussions using Skype, Zoom and Microsoft Teams. Not only can we continue to communicate and engage with stakeholders, but there is the added benefit of being able to meet more often, increasing productivity and reducing costs arising from the elimination of travel time. 

3. Consider digital mapping tools - Community mapping, using maps and photographs of an area or specific location, is a useful way to engage people of all levels of capability. A variety of aspects can be mapped including land use, community facilities, and transport networks to develop a snapshot of an area. Mapping is an effective method for people to illustrate how they view an area (what they like or dislike, what improvements they would like to see) or to comment on projects by location or features. We are able to swap hard copy maps and in-person workshops with digital mapping tools and facilitated online workshops or discussion forums to help people identify issues, provide local knowledge, explore ideas, build consensus or identify areas of conflict. This will work for both ideation and optioneering phases of a project. 

4. Try out Frankly AI!Artificial intelligence can be a highly effective engagement solution for targeted stakeholder or wider public consultation during the current public health related restrictions - and beyond! The Frankly AI tool is a conversational AI system (or chatbot) that makes use of artificial intelligence software to engage with people in natural conversations. This tool works via voice or text and it asks questions, listens to people's perspective and then collects and processes their ideas and suggestions using AI. As well as delivering the raw data of conversations, Frankly AI captures a broader understanding of sentiment, views and concerns. The chatbot can be supplemented with access to useful content to help generate conversation (such as photos, maps, videos), with the ability for conversations to be easily escalated to a real person (such as the Project Manager or Engagement Specialist) for a follow-up conversation. Frankly AI complements existing engagement tools and channels and enables business continuity for the engagement process when traditional face-to-face channels (such as interviews, focus groups, open days, pop-up events) are not possible.  

5. Use webinars to replace workshops - Traditional workshops allow people to learn about a particular topic and then discuss their ideas / perspectives in an open and relaxed atmosphere. We can use Webinars to replace in-person workshops by moving the event online. These can still be designed to share information; to discuss local issues and to obtain ideas and innovative thinking for a way forward for a project (think option development webinar!), the strengths and weaknesses of various concepts (think optioneering webinar!), or they can be focused on the risks and opportunities of an idea or project (think risk webinar!). Webinars can be pre-recorded if the purpose is to inform or present, or they can be a live and interactive online workshop if the purpose is to consult or collaborate with stakeholders through real-time conversation. The pre-workshop planning is similar in terms of preparing an invitation, registration tool and event material (presentation, maps, quick-poll questions). Voila! 

6. Be brave and think differently - explore new and creative ways to connect and communicate, improve your digital engagement capability and evolve and broaden your engagement practice! 

7. Stay customer-centric - As we embrace our digital engagement tools as the sole means of communicating and engaging with project stakeholders (for the time being), it is important to stay user-centric and not fall into the trap of becoming technology-centric. This means continuing to carefully plan our engagement activities, think about the customer and facilitate a quality stakeholder engagement experience by posing engaging questions, providing a range of digital tools and channels, and perhaps running a longer than typical engagement period, all of which will enable stakeholders to decide if, how and when they engage on the topic during these challenging times. 

8. Etiquette tip #1 - Encourage videos to be turned on in meetings (Practical focus) Video cameras capture expressions and increased body language which aid communicating in both a one-to-one and team environment. Building rapport and establishing a connection is essential to building trusted communication between parties. Even quick conversations can influence projects and should be done well.  

9. Etiquette tip #2 - Mute your mic (practical focus) Mute your microphone when not speaking during voice or video calls (whether it be on Skype or Zoom) in order to avoid background noise and meeting disruption should your pets, flatmates or children need to interact with you. It is also ok to mute or excuse yourself from a discussion (we are all human), but let's aim to minimise engagement disruptions.  

10. Etiquette tip #3 - Close the loop (process focus) Maintain quality of your engagement programme during the new norm of digital engagement. It is still imperative post engagement to "Close the loop" - these communications demonstrate to your stakeholders and community that their views have been heard by summarising the details of the feedback you received and how it has influenced decision making. Closing the loop shows respect for participants time, assists to build trust and provides transparency for decision making.

About the Author
Ashlie Carlyle

Senior Associate - Planning (Auckland Environments)

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