Moving Forward: #PostCovidEngagement

Anston Ratnayake and Sam Noakes, City of Canterbury-Bankstown 

2020 has rapidly transformed technology and forced organisations, networks, and software to develop and adapt to the needs of the community they service. This takes us to “Digital engagement” – now everyone would have a definition for that, and some keen community engagers might even runaway at the sound of that. However, COVID-19 has tested the best of community engagement, and everyone in this sphere is feeling the pressure to build on digital engagement.

One thing we need to realise is that digital engagement can be a very ambiguous term and it shifts depending on who the end user is. As a council, our end user is our community, whereas a goods and service company would picture their end user as a customer who needs to be engaged so they will keep purchasing their product. The key is to understand your end user and how digital engagement will be impacting them, while also getting quality responses/results in your engagement.

As a council, Canterbury Bankstown (CBCity) has committed themselves to better decision making for the community that is based on values and goals. Our Local Government Area (LGA) is diverse in all sense of demographics and geographic, and in 2020 we are even more committed to ensuring that our residents and business owners are informed and have opportunities to contribute to shaping Council projects, plans and decisions without leaving their premises or if they choose not to attend major physical engagement activities.

Gamification (sometimes referred to as playerfication) can achieve just that, while capturing the vision of the community in a virtual environment and letting their creativity flow. We all know games are fun – rules are defined, the process is engaging for the user and the results are immediate to the engager. To acknowledge communities and users intangible labour with intangible rewards “Gamification” can create instances of loyalty with game-like language, including experience points (XP), badges or even leader boards. CBCity begun the transformation of engagement in March 2020, by changing how the community interacted with council, participating in a community project, commenting on improvements, and coming together as a community during the pandemic. In doing so, we supported the community to participate in interactive online activities that added the value of social (based around doing things as a family), while concurrently helping the community understand the processes within local government and building on the relationship between council and community – an opportunity for successful collaboration amongst such uncertain times.

CBCity council has created this structure in several projects including Parry Park Play space Project in Community Engagement as well as the recent Careers+ program within our major events calendar. These two projects, with the onset of COVID-19 social restrictions, presented to the community as a fully online experience. In any case, we believe that organisations should aim to achieve 1 of if not all 4 outcomes when involving the community in the decision-making process through gamification of a process/project.

  • To engage
  • To inform/build understanding
  • To build relationships/teamwork
  • Break the ice (target/reach/connect with a demographic)

Parry Park aimed its gamification techniques to two major stakeholder groups, the children/young people that used the play space, and the parents/guardians that got them there and supervised, which resulted in a “family activity”. Kids completed a series of questions that generated a character persona from their favourite movie as a reward for completing preference-based questions on the space. Parents were given points as a currency to fund elements of the entire park. There were more options than there were points, so they had to distribute wisely. These techniques allowed for project working groups to identify sentiment and preference amongst interested park users that did not feel like they were contributing to an inevitable survey burnout.

While Careers+ was participation driven and the main goal was to gain leads, stimulate engagement and retain attention over several scheduled programming, resources, and information. Leader boards, badges and participation points for redemption were all mechanics in a virtual jobs fair. Simply, the longer people watched, the more they clicked into information and got involved in the platform built for them, the more they were rewarded. They could redeem points for tickets in tangible prizes that not only helped their chances of winning, but also meant they were checking out the platform in its entirety. The leader boards and badges were reliant on the enjoyment humans find in recognising and completing patterns, giving opinions, feeding curiosity and the extrinsic motivation of the virtual carrot, coupled with the intrinsic desire of the completionist, to get to the next level, to accomplish the next badge or content unlock.

As seen in the two case studies, it is necessary to give community members a story to be drawn in by and assisting them in immersing themselves in this online experience. There needs to be an exchange of value, rather than just getting them to fill out a survey online. Story-driven digital engagement provides insight into a project and gives the community member an informative message – we are approachable, human and most of all makes the community member feel like they are part of a larger community.

Digital engagement in the future will assist to identify opportunities for engagement in the community through the deeper connection they have built within the community. It also allows for the organisation to produce hard data that is “quality” over “quantity” as you can set rules, guide and monitor conversations and answer questions during online engagement. Which then gives space to the mutual understanding that is developed from engaging them online and realising trends, issues and perspectives in the community, thus allowing for better future engagement strategies in the community – whether face-to-face or online.

As we head into 2021, one has to realise that the benefits of digital community engagement are infinite, but the most effective consultation whether online or face-to-face happens when you understand the community you are engaging with.