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Conducting virtual community engagement

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Overview

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, cities, towns, and counties have had to shift how they primarily engage with community members from in-person to virtual methods. While localities may have initially found virtual forms of engagement to be challenging to adapt to, there are many benefits to online engagement that will remain valuable and applicable once the pandemic has ended. This brief outlines methods and tools for virtual engagement, opportunities for and challenges of virtual engagement, and overall best practices localities may want to consider as they aim to strengthen their use of online tools for community engagement. The brief also includes examples of how three cities used virtual methods for community engagement during the pandemic.
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, cities, towns, and counties have had to shift how they primarily engage with community members from in-person to virtual methods. While localities may have initially found virtual forms of engagement to be challenging to adapt to, there are many benefits to online engagement that will remain valuable and applicable once the pandemic has ended. This brief outlines methods and tools for virtual engagement, opportunities for and challenges of virtual engagement, and overall best practices localities may want to consider as they aim to strengthen their use of online tools for community engagement. The brief also includes examples of how three cities used virtual methods for community engagement during the pandemic.

Benefits of virtual community engagement

While the pandemic has essentially required localities to adopt virtual means of engaging with the community, there are benefits to virtual engagement that suggest it is worth continuing in some capacity once the pandemic has ended.

Accessibility for diverse groups: Research has shown that traditional community meetings held in-person fail to represent the diversity of the whole community, and these meetings can often be dominated by one person or a few vocal people. Virtual meetings and events can be more accessible to people who work, lack transportation, or have children at home and therefore can more fully engage people with different circumstances and backgrounds.

Decreased burden on participants: Virtual options to engage—such as attending an online meeting, submitting a comment or feedback on a policy online, or filling out a survey—is generally less time-intensive than attending an in-person meeting. This benefits both community members and leaders, as people may be more likely to participate.

Efficient information gathering & dissemination: Online platforms that gather information, input, or feedback from community members are often more efficient than collecting this data in-person and may result in data collection from a more diverse group of people. Virtual engagement can allow localities to share information quickly and easily with the public on multiple platforms.

Access to community members: When leaders aim to engage with community members online, they are also able to meet the community where they already are on social media and other virtual platforms. Social media can be used to raise awareness of community issues while also informing residents on how they can engage in other ways, such as visiting the locality website, attending an in-person or virtual meeting, or submitting input through an online tool.

Types of virtual engagement tools

There are several categories of online tools that localities may want to explore as they develop virtual engagement strategies for their community. These tools can serve a wide range of purposes, and localities may use multiple tools at once to meet different needs. When considering these tools, it is important to remember that effective virtual engagement involves more than transferring techniques used in-person to a virtual platform. Localities may want to adopt techniques for engagement that are suited to a virtual setting, such as relying less on live, presentation-style meetings and more on methods that allow residents to engage in multiple ways, on their own time, and at their own pace.

Survey platforms

Online survey platforms are a useful tool that localities may want to consider for virtual engagement. Surveys allow localities to gather a large amount of data from residents and stakeholders relatively quickly. Data gathered through locally-conducted surveys can be more specific and nuanced than aggregate statistics available from sources such as the American Community Survey, as direct surveys provide individual-level information on housing needs, among other topics. Online survey platforms also can allow community members to complete surveys anonymously and thus people may be more willing to share honest information and opinions than they might through other formats.

Localities may want to consider using platforms that offer the following key features:

  • Various types of questions the locality can select based on the data that they want to collect. For example, multiple choice questions may be used to gather categorical data, while short answer or open response options allow respondents to provide a more nuanced or comprehensive response.
  • Translation of the survey into multiple languages, which can help reach community members with limited English proficiency, or accessibility features that enable people with disabilities to complete the survey.
  • Skip and piping logic in which the survey adjusts to bring forward additional questions, skip others, and customize questions based on the respondent’s responses to prior questions.


Online survey platforms are often free or inexpensive, requiring little monetary investment from the locality into the software itself. However, localities may need to make a substantial investment of time and money to develop a useful survey and to analyze the results once people have completed it. Localities may want to consider what resources will be needed to carry out a survey from start to finish at the outset.

Online collaboration tools

Localities may find collaboration tools useful if they aim to include the community and stakeholders in an iterative and collaborative process around project planning or policymaking, such as when developing a neighborhood revitalization strategy. Online collaboration tools are a way for many people to directly contribute ideas and feedback to an existing space or document, allowing them to edit and add to it. For example, collaboration tools can be used to allow community members to:

  • Share their ideas for a neighborhood planning project as it develops.
  • Give direct feedback to community leaders on proposed legislation or policies.
  • Propose solutions to an issue facing the locality, such as a need for affordable housing.
  • View and respond directly to others’ ideas, fostering a dialogue.


As collaboration tools bring forward the ideas of several people, the locality may want to consider how it will organize and keep track of ideas shared and changes made before launching the tool. The locality may want to consider when and how people can contribute to the platform, how they will manage versions, and establish rules on how to make edits and what types of comments can be provided. This can allow for an iterative planning process while still maintaining a sense of order and organization.

Online meeting platforms

Online meeting platforms can facilitate virtual community discussions about a certain issue, debate legislation, raise concerns, and share ideas. Virtual meetings are a necessity during COVID-19, but they may continue to be useful as a supplement to in-person meetings after the pandemic due to their convenience and accessibility.

Keeping the audience’s attention during presentations is a challenge in online meetings. When designing meetings, localities may want to consider ways to make the meeting more interactive than it might be if held in person. Online meeting platforms often have features that allow for interaction. For example:

  • Meeting hosts can poll attendees on questions of interest.
  • Attendees can react on their screen with a thumbs up or down, a smile, or similar emotions to show others their response to comments or proposed ideas. This is particularly helpful in a large group if not everyone would have a chance to speak or would want to do so.
  • Participants can virtually “raise their hand” to communicate to meeting organizers that they wish to speak.
  • Attendees can ask written questions and receive responses from hosts through a Q&A feature.
  • Hosts can set up breakout rooms to split a large group into several meeting rooms, allowing for small group discussion and a chance for people to get to know each other better.
  • Hosts can record the meeting if they want to fully capture the conversation or distribute the meeting with others who could not attend. They should be sure to inform participants that the meeting is being recorded and ask for their permission before doing so.


Localities may want to invest in training or a practice session if participants are not familiar with an online meeting platform. It is also important to establish rules for online meetings and announce them at the beginning of the meeting, including how attendees will indicate that they want to speak and how organizers will determine the order in which people will be called on.

Streaming platforms

Online video streaming platforms can be used to broadcast meetings or events to the public. Streaming platforms can be useful when the information is traveling in one direction and direct interaction with the viewer is not needed. These platforms do not require people to sign in to an account or register, eliminating a potential barrier to participation.

Localities may wish to utilize streaming platforms to:

  • Host an event or panel where a small group of people will be speaking.
  • Live stream a meeting or event occurring in-person to people not in attendance.
  • Allow a public official or leader to speak directly to a large group of community members at once about legislation or a plan, for example.


Localities should keep in mind that there is likely to be less interaction on a streaming platform than there would be on a virtual meeting platform because while attendees can post comments and questions through a chat feature, they cannot contribute verbally to the discussion or be seen by others. It is important to note that these streaming platforms often allow open access unless actively restricted, meaning that anyone from the general public could view the live stream.

Social media

Localities may also want to use social media platforms to engage their communities. These platforms are most likely to be useful to share information on issues in the locality and to keep community members updated on planning and other processes. In turn, the community can engage with this information, share the posts to their networks, and communicate their own ideas either directly on posts or through their own social media accounts as well.

Localities may consider using social media to do the following:

  • Post information on community issues, plans, or legislation.
  • Schedule virtual or in-person events and invite people.
  • Create public community groups where members can post or comment, fostering conversation.
  • Respond to private messages from community members, allowing questions or concerns to be raised directly to page organizers.


While social media may be a less traditional way for localities to communicate, it can allow them to meet community members where they are online. This means they will likely reach people who may not have engaged in community processes in other ways. Engaging individuals through social media platforms may allow a more diverse group of people to stay informed on community happenings and encourage them to attend community meetings or otherwise get involved.

While engaging the community through social media can be beneficial, it can also be time-consuming to create social media content, post it, and monitor these platforms. Localities may want to consider how they will build using social media into their budget and schedule, who will oversee these platforms, how often they want to post, and how many social media platforms they will utilize.

Data visualization and mapping tools

Another type of online tool can help localities visualize and map data and ideas collected through, or in preparation for, community engagement. This can further facilitate group collaboration, whether that be among local government staff or elected officials to then be shared with the community or whether it includes direct contributions from community members as well. These tools allow people to:

  • Highlight or color-code a map based on demographic data, areas in need of certain resources, and other metrics of interest.
  • Visualize survey data to better understand and interpret it.  
  • Draw ideas for the proposed construction of housing or schools directly onto a map.
  • Present a visual plan or proposal for the community and receive direct feedback on the same platform.


While these tools can be very useful as localities collaborate in a planning process, they may require some investment upfront. These tools are likely new to many people, including both leaders and community members. Localities may want to conduct training or provide resources to ensure people know how to use them. It is also important to ensure that community members are able to interpret any data visualizations in order for these resources to be accessible and useful to the entire community.

Other tools

In addition to the tools listed above, the tools below may enable interaction with community members on a regular basis. These tools may require custom development or modification to serve the needs of a particular locality. Some examples are:

  • Phone apps: Localities may consider using an app to facilitate community engagement. Residents could use the app to inform staff in the locality about problems like an inaccessible building or a pothole, receive alerts from the locality during emergencies, give feedback to the locality on certain issues, and find information on locality resources, such as contact information for departments.
  • Gamification:  Localities may consider engaging residents through apps that use gamification. Gamification employs game-like elements in non-game contexts. For example, a community member who uses the app may receive recognition or a “prize” for providing feedback to the locality, engaging in discussion with other community members, or coming up with a good idea that the locality decides to implement. Gamification apps can make community involvement more fun, encouraging people to participate.
  • Virtual notification system: A notification and information-sharing system through phone, email, or text can help localities inform residents on resources available to them, community meetings and events scheduled, and important legislation passed, among other things. 

Challenges of virtual community engagement

As localities consider how to engage virtually with the community and the benefits of doing so, they may also face challenges. While during the pandemic, there are few opportunities to engage in-person, it will be important for localities to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of online tools as in-person events become safer.

Accessibility issues

While virtual events and platforms may be more accessible to some groups of people, they may be less accessible than an in-person meeting for others. For example, older adults, seniors, people with disabilities, those in rural areas, homeless individuals, and other groups may not have access to a computer or high-speed internet or may not know how to use or cannot access virtual platforms. This may make them less likely to participate in virtual events and may cause stress and anxiety surrounding the use of online tools. Staff time may need to be dedicated to assisting individuals in understanding how to use tools they are not familiar with.

Potential decrease in collaboration and idea-sharing

There are certain benefits to in-person engagement that cannot be fully replicated virtually. When community members come together in person, they are able to collaborate, get to know each other, bounce ideas off of one another, learn from others’ perspectives, and otherwise build community. While some online platforms do allow people to interact and meet each other, those interactions often do not happen as naturally as in-person connection; a facilitator or moderator may be helpful on some online platforms to encourage engagement from and interaction among participants, and to ensure no single participant dominates the session.

Cost of online tools

While virtual engagement may make it easier for community members who want to be involved, it can be more costly for the locality itself. For example, online tools may require a paid subscription or membership, and IT support or staff training might be required for staff to use them properly. Additionally, while surveys may be free or inexpensive to make online, localities may need to invest substantial time and resources into developing a high-quality survey and analyzing the results. There also may be privacy and security concerns that come with some meeting platforms, which can create problems when discussing sensitive or personal information.

Gatekeeping

Another issue that can arise in a virtual setting is the power often held by those running the event. In a call or video meeting, moderators and IT support staff can become gatekeepers of the discussion, determining who can participate and when. For example, participants may be muted by the event organizers and must wait to be “called on” in order to speak. This gives participants less control over how and when their voice is heard and they may have less of an opportunity to challenge decisions or share their opinions than they would in an in-person environment.

Best practices

As localities increasingly aim to establish and improve their virtual means of engagement during COVID-19 and afterward, there are several best practices worth considering that can help communities reap the benefits and address the challenges discussed above.

Create alternatives for community involvement

Leaders organizing virtual engagement platforms should work to create alternatives for getting involved that allow as many people to participate as possible. For example, localities can make materials and information available in multiple languages for people with limited English proficiency. When using surveys to gather information or feedback, they can provide an option for the survey to be mailed to participants or completed by phone in addition to online in case individuals do not have internet or computer access or do not know how to fill it out virtually. Meeting organizers can accept comments before and after a meeting, allowing those who cannot participate in a live meeting, do not know how to use the online platform, or are afraid to speak up to have their voice heard.

Make engagement more accessible

When it comes to virtual meetings themselves, there are several options that can make them more accessible. For example, localities can also use a platform that has a call-in option, allowing users to call into the meeting without internet access, and one that allows participants to join the meeting without logging in, which could help those who are not sure how to make an account to join. Localities should keep in mind that when participants do not log in, it is harder to track who is in attendance at an event, which could worsen privacy or security concerns and make it more difficult to track feedback. Virtual meetings are also likely to run more smoothly if those organizing and presenting at the event hold a practice session prior to the meeting itself, allowing them to log onto the platform and ensure they know how to use it properly. This can mitigate problems and reduce anxiety the day of the event itself.

Use multiple online platforms

Looking beyond meetings, it may be beneficial for localities to utilize multiple platforms to engage the community and seek input, which can help reach as many people as possible. For example, localities may ask for feedback in a live meeting, on their website, and through a survey link. They may post information for community members on multiple social media platforms, by email, and on their website. This allows localities to meet people where they already are online and both receive input from and disseminate information to a more diverse group.

Foster an iterative process

Localities may want to consider a slower and more iterative process when requesting feedback and engagement from the community. While an in-person event may do a better job of facilitating an iterative process within one meeting through live conversation and interaction, virtual processes can also allow for the development of ideas and materials over time as they are passed between people and from leaders to community members and back. An iterative process can also involve smaller groups participating in virtual events and several discussions at one time to allow for more dialogue between participants. For example, a locality could schedule several different meeting times or conduct focus groups rather than holding one all-encompassing meeting for the entire community to discuss a topic.

Partner with the community to develop ideas

It can be helpful for localities to partner with community leaders, members, and organizations when developing tools for virtual engagement in order to incorporate their ideas on how to best engage the whole community. These groups may have a good sense of the types of virtual interaction that would make individuals likely to participate in these processes, and they are likely well-equipped to tap into networks of populations that may be harder to reach through traditional means.  

Examples

Three localities – Missoula, MT, Kalamazoo, MI, and Cambridge, MA – have had success using various tools to virtually engage residents and stakeholders in local development plans. Each of these localities participated in a series on virtual community engagement for Smart Growth America in 2020. More information about the examples highlighted below, including recorded webinars with representatives from each locality, can be found here.

Missoula, Montana

In Missoula, Montana, local planners developed the Mullan Area Master Plan, which determined the land use and transportation grid for a portion of the Missoula Valley. To engage Missoula residents and stakeholders, the planners wanted to hold a week-long intensive community design workshop with residents, business owners, environmental advocates, and city leaders. After the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the planners decided to move the workshop online rather than delay the timeline. This is because the road-building aspect of the plan had a strict deadline and the plan already had months of substantial work behind it.

Planners employed several tools to engage stakeholders and the public. For example, a web-design platform with built-in tools and analytics was used to construct a central website for the workshop. Another online tool was used to create a virtual calendar that linked to stakeholder meetings and virtual studios, or public meetings during which residents could communicate with other planners. The planners also used a presentation tool’s embedded film and voice-over capabilities to record and produce 5-10 minute informational videos about various aspects of the plan, such as urban design, environmental considerations, and economic development. The website included an “Engage” tab with both visual and written surveys to gauge public opinion and incorporate ideas into the planning process. For example, residents could draw on draft maps and participate in other visual exercises to communicate their land-use preferences.

Through this process, the final plan included a walkable neighborhood with 6,500 new units, a community farm, and eco-friendly trails and green spots. The virtual workshops resulted in greater community participation: in-person workshops in the past had hundreds of attendees, while the virtual workshop had thousands. Participants in the virtual setting were also more diverse than those who attended in-person workshops and meetings. Community residents were surveyed and expressed that it was easier to participate in technical discussions online and that meetings were more accessible.

Kalamazoo, Michigan

In Kalamazoo, Michigan, city planners wanted to update the master plan while increasing community engagement and minimizing their budget. Tools and methods they used at little or no cost included streaming meetings over a video sharing platform and using the comment box to collect feedback. They also created informational videos, translated them to increase inclusivity, and partnered with local radio and TV stations to disseminate information. Low-cost efforts included creating a central website for the project and paying for tools like survey generators and video conferencing platforms. A higher cost but more sophisticated website platform allowed planners to stream meetings and create a forum for the public to comment and participate. To reach those who did not have access to reliable Wi-Fi or technology, planners held a telephone town hall and conducted further outreach through social media, radio blasts, flyers, pamphlets, and announcements at public meetings.

Cambridge, Massachusetts

The Cambridge Redevelopment Authority began a new planning process, the Kendall Square Urban Renewal Plan, for east Cambridge. They developed a central website for the project using an online collaboration tool. The website has information and documents related to the plan, a tab for regular updates about meetings, a detailed timeline, and a tab for public feedback and commentary. They found that this tool works well when used for focused project sites, as the website serves as a central place for community members to come to learn about and discuss a project directly with the project team.  The planners also felt that this tool was most successful when connected to other outreach strategies like texting campaigns, surveys, meetings, and mapping tools. Additionally, they determined that while the website tool was easy to use and worked well for communication and engagement, it was not as useful in delivering and presenting information or data to the community as other kinds of tools. Planners also found that a virtual setting is not conducive to resolving a conflict between community members, as residents were not able to hold full, face-to-face conversations about the benefits and drawbacks of a project online, and instead would quickly separate into silos when forming opinions. Tools and methods that promote interaction between residents could be helpful in fostering consensus.

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