Nowadays, almost all tasks and processes are automated – and so far, automation has paid off. Like other sectors that have benefited from going digital, so can the regulatory sector that handles the public comment process. In some cases, the public comment process can end up with hundreds of thousands of comments. Consequently, it would be rather challenging sifting through them all and analyzing without the help of a digital comment processing tool, especially in the interest of time.
Benefits of Online Public Engagement
It is vital to look for ways to engage community members on local agency issues and decisions. Whether done digitally or in person, public engagement gives community members a sense of worth and belonging – not to mention these governing agencies get a chance to collect ideas from varying points of view. Here are some of the benefits of adopting a digital approach during the public comment period.
Reaching a Broader Audience
Typically, an in-person meeting can only hold a handful of people, most of which would be professional citizens. That means that the opinions of the majority of the population go unheard. However, with a digital platform, public members can express their views wherever they are. Even citizens with a demanding schedule can find time in between the period to express their opinion. Besides, those who don’t live near the meeting venues won’t have to incur an extra expense of getting to the meeting.
It’s also important to acknowledge that some community members are fearful of public meeting formats. Therefore, even if they had time to attend meetings, they would still go home with unspoken ideas. However, digital platforms create a cushioning layer and provide anonymity, making it safe for anyone to contribute.
Community participation is very important, but it would be pretty expensive to organize in-person meetings that round up all community members. The reason is, the agency looking for public comments would have to arrange several meetings in different areas of the targeted locations and at different times of the week to cater to everyone. However, with a digital public comment tool, every community member can be accommodated at no extra cost.
Besides saving money that would be used for hiring venues for public meetings, government agencies and other policymakers save on printing costs, postage costs, and other overhead expenses accrues with planning public meetings.
It’s essential for government agencies and other bodies to keep in mind that demographics are constantly changing. For instance, the majority of the population at the moment is young and inclined towards digital services. Similarly, people are slowly veering away from traditional content for more interactive options. The only way to cater to such a demographic is to transition the public comment process to digital platforms.
That way, agencies can guarantee a better participant experience, which is the core of the process. Digital platforms leave so much room for exploration. Case in point, they allow organizations to communicate their plan to the public in the form of interactive videos. They can also accommodate other modern technologies, such as virtual and augmented reality.
Most importantly, digital involvement makes it easier to engage the community from the initial stages of a project. That makes it easier to uncover hidden issues or ideas – adding significant value to a project.
Digital public comment tools make it easier for agencies and organizations to derive information from a set of responses. Besides, before community members can give their opinions, they can better understand the background or context of the project in question. That makes it easier for them to provide rich answers. Besides, digital platforms allow organizations to set the rules and guide the feedback, making it easier to sift through.
It also makes it easier to group the responses. For instance, digital tools allow organizations to view replies according to topic and location. Therefore, it’s easier to understand which problem is facing a particular region instead of making assumptions.
Strategies for Successful Online Engagement
Conducting the public comment period digitally has numerous benefits – but only if executed right. Here are some strategies to make the process successful:
1. Seeing Through the Audience’s Lenses
Most organizations make the mistake of building a frame without the target audience in mind. Even though public participation is essential, agencies have to convince members of the public to take part. It could be through speaking their language or tailoring the questions in a relatable context.
2. Breaking Down Barriers of Participation
At the end of the day, people are busy and will most likely quit the public comment process at the first instance of a participation barrier. Agencies can only make the most out of digital engagement if they make it easy for the public to participate. They can achieve that by avoiding jargon, long sentences, and everything else that can discourage an audience.
3. Spending Time on Strategy
The goal is to come up with a strategy that will impact members of the public. Therefore, there is no need for agencies and organizations to rush through the strategy phase of the process. It’s important to note that planning the outreach strategy is as crucial as getting responses from the public.
4. Involve Professionals
Most people believe that government agencies and other organizations ask for public participation as a PR stunt. Therefore, it’s essential to involve communication experts who can develop a strategy that will restore trust from the public. Otherwise, even the best-laid plans might flop if community members don’t believe agencies care deeply about their concerns.
5. Selecting the Right Platform
The digital platform an agency chooses also plays a vital role in the success of a public comment period. Before settling on a hosting platform, organizations need to ensure that it has the functionality they are looking for and meets all the legal requirements.
Even with the transition to digital community engagements, face-to-face engagement remains a powerful tool of public participation. Online engagement doesn’t look to downplay the role of face-to-face participation but to complement it.