How to do Effective Online Public Engagement when you need to Tell (Part 2)

This selection comes from the upcoming book, Online Public Engagement, due out in 2016 from Routledge Press.  This section uses the framework for understanding different types of public engagement that I laid out in an earlier chapter, summed up as Tell, Ask, Discuss, Decide, and talks about how to do effective Telling-style public engagement in an online context, such as sharing background information or proposed alternatives that are being considered.

You can learn more about the Wise Economy Workshop’s strategy for doing more effective public engagement — whether online or in real life — in Crowdsourcing Wisdom: a guide to doing public meetings that actually make your community better (and won’t make people wish they hadn’t come).  

Videos. Use of videos in online materials of all types has exploded within recent years, as both expotential increases in digital storage capacity and ubiquitous devices for making and consuming video have proliferated.  Video can have substantial benefits for online public engagement — the ease of video consumption can draw in viewers who might otherwise not linger on the site, and the visual nature of video can definitely increase information retention for some participants.  But video can create some challenges for effective and meaningful Telling:

  • Because of both upload considerations and viewer preferences, short videos of no more than a couple of minutes tend to predominate in online sites of any type, and thus potential viewers may be predisposed to regard anything longer as too long (unless it is something that they came to the site with the intent to watch, such as a presentation or a documentary).  As a result, video as a first-line Telling tool can lack effectiveness because the amount of time needed to convey the same amount of information as in a 300-word written section may take too long, especially if it is not produced in a visually interesting manner.  For “deeper” parts of the information hierarchy, which may be accesseed mostly by people who are invested in the topic and willing to spend some time on it, a longer-form video may be useful.  For the main page of information, however, video is typically best limited to a very broad (and brief) invitation or orientation materials.
  • While some communities and organizations may be comfortable with the more casual style of informal video that may be captured via cell phone, many agencies will want to present a more polished appearance in their Telling videos (even if a more casual approach might have the benefit of humanizing the public engagement initiative).  While casual social media-style video can be filmed and uploaded in a manner of minutes, video that has been even semi-professionally edited, color balanced, audio enhanced, etc. takes both time and either staff skills or the budget to retain professional assistance.  For a public engagement effort with a tight budget, video that requires editing and production may not offer sufficient benefit to be worth the cost.  Instead, it may make sense to use mobile technology to record brief person-on-the-street type interviews as a supplement to other forms of information.  A long selfie-style explanation of a technical topic, on the other hand, will probably only benefit the initiative if extremely well done.
  • Many agencies may find it easier to use one of the comercially-available sites for producing animated online presentations, such as Presi or GoAnimate, to create simple video presentations.  Many of these sites will enable audio voice-over and can incorporate graphics, animations and other presentation methods.  Producing video in this manner can require some technical skills, and may require a subscription to the animation platform, but this method also eliminates potential problems that often plague amateur videography, such as poor lighting and  audio or stiff performances.  If using music, remember that, unless specified by the source, most recorded music is copyrighted and may not be legal to use without permission.


Infographics.  Infographics are basically visual presentations of complex information. An infographic can take the form of a chart or a collection of simple charts, or it can be an image that combines text snippets, illustrations, symbols and other design to convey relatively complex information in a manner that is easier and more visually appealing than conventional lines of text. Infographics are often easier to comprehend because they leverage the highly-refined human cognition trait of pattern recognition – they visually demonstrate patterns and connections in information in a manner that we have honed to understand through generations.

While a number of infographic generators have become available in recent years, producing an infographic that actually aids understanding of a complex topic is not necessarily as intuitive as selecting from a site’s templates and dumping in a data set.  Without thoughtful consideration and some awareness of graphic design and user interface issues, an automatically-generated or poorly-designed infographic can mislead as much as it helps.  For example, many chart wizards will automatically set the axes based on the range of the data provided, but this can skew the visual appearnance of the results by over-emphasizing small differences or otherwise distorting the information.  Similarly, an automatically-generated word cloud (an infographic that renders key words in different sized type based on the frequency with which the word appears in a text) can lose its informative value to the reader if its algorhythms automatically highlight obvious words, such as the name of the city or the project).

Most commercial online public engagement platform providers are likely to have built governors into their infographic generators that should lessen these kinds of errors, if the app or platform offers that capability.  But if you are creating your own infographics, or using an online infographic generator, you should check the results carefully, and ask: if I did not know anything about this project, what conclusions would I draw from this infographic – and are those conclusions correct?  It will also be helpful to consult with an experienced graphic designer and data analyst to make certain that you are not creating an infographic that risks misleading your public.

Interactive graphics. While these are not entirely common within online public engagement at this time, interactive graphics are becoming more and more ubiquitous within online platforms of many kinds, for the same reasons that short text and images are easier to digest online than print-style long form linear text. A common example of an interactive graphic is a Google map: you can pan from the section you see on your screen at one moment to another section, you can zoom in and out, and you can click on a single item on the image to access more information, see photographs, link to information about that location on other sites, etc. ] Interactive graphics can be maps, infographics with links embedded, or any other kind of online feature, and the interaction available may be as simple as a hyperlink or as complex as a pop-up embedded browser screen that pulls in real-time information from another site.

Unless you have a savvy programmer on staff or your online public engagement provider can enable interactive graphics, you may be limited to embedding or linking to interactive graphics on another site.  Whenever possible, however, interactive graphics will probably increase your public reach and accessibility.

Visualizations.  Visualizations are a specific type of interactive graphic that is usually designed to model complex information, such as geographic data or a future site build-out or long-term change in a dimension of the environment, in a two- or three-dimensional manner.  Typically, visualization technology requires a significant level of computing power to manipulate a very large set of data (for example, several GIS files and a few thousand point measures) in a manner that either renders the information in a complex chart or overlays the data onto a base map.  A visualization can usually change on demand if the data sets informing it are manupulated (for example, if the proposed building height in the design is raised from 35 to 40 feet).  Visualizations are particularly valuable for creating 3-D renderings of potential physical spaces, demonstrating how changes in one dimension (such as building height) may impact other issues (such as population density), or showing how complex phenomena (such as tides) may impact other complex situations (such as coastal construction).

Visualization technology has been available for as long as GIS and digital spreadsheets have been around, but recent advances in computing power, online data storage and software has enabled technology providers of all types to generate powerful in-office and cloud-based tools for visualization.  However, few public agencies have made the visualization models that they use available to the public to date; in most cases, any sharing of the findings of the visualization are limited to stills embedded as static images  This may have to do with the amount of computing power and data stream required to render a visualization, but it also appears to indicate a lack of willingness or overall awareness of the potential benefits of enabling the public to rotate and examine the visualization in a manner similar to what staffers do in the office.

Mini Asking activities. We have defined Asking as a different kind of public engagement than Telling, but even in a context focused on Telling, brief and targeted Asking activities can have at least three benefits:

  • They provide an additional opportunity for the user to interact with the information being provided.  Again, the advantage (and the necessity) of online communication methods is that they lessen the need to constrain users to a long-form, text-dominant information-conveying method that poorly fits how many people best gain and retain information.  A brief survey gives participants a different, more active way to interact with the information being presented, and may help increase understanding.
  • They provide a means by which agency staff can evaluate whether important content is being conveyed effectively.  Crafted carefully, a brief survey asking for responses to the information that the site provides can help determine whether content needs to be tweaked or if a graphic is not being interpreted as intended.
  •  They provide a small measure of humanizing the process.  As we have noted previously, one of the problems with relying on a Telling strategy for public engagement is that it does not build a sense of trust or common purpose with members of the public, which becomes necessary when one is trying to address a difficult or costly challenge, or engage the private sector in addressing public needs, or lessen angry or hostile behavior in the public arena.   A small amount of Asking could begin to crack the sense of Us vs Them, especially if this small act in itself represents a divergence from business as usual.

As we discussed in Chapter 3, however, one of the greatest risks to effective public engagement (online or off) is the hypocritical effort – the one that claims that the public’s input is valued and honored and important, but which then ignores the public’s input in the recommendations and shunts it into an obscure appendix to the final report.  Not only does this kind of fake public engagement make participants angry, but it reinforces distrust of governments and agencies and public participation initiatives, and sets the groundwork for future drawn-out, ugly confrontations between public sector officials who fear the public’s anger and members of the public who believe that they will be steamrolled unless they react loudly and vehemtly.  Since we see on the national and international stage, as well as locally, the damage that this confrontational mind-set has been creating, it is crucial that even a Telling-focused public engagement initiative strive to avoid making this situation any worse.

As a result, if you plan to incorporate a brief survey or other Asking-type activity into your online information reporting, make certain that you do not Ask about anything that the project and the public engagement efforts cannot deliver.  A “What do you want to see here?” question is inappropriate in a project whose public engagement efforts are limited to Telling, because if there is no possibility that the public’s feedback will be considered in the solution (for example, the site physically cannot support a building due to its unstable soils or flood risk), then asking a question that allows for something that cannot happen is not reponsible public engagement.

Instead, surveys or feedback questions in a Telling context should be limited to issues where public feedback can actually be used.  Questions such as “what was the most important thing to you about the Floodplain section?” or “Was there anything in the Soils section that surprised you?” would both give you a sense of the public’s priorities and allow you to assess whether they are understanding the information correctly without creating unfair expectations of influence over the results of the process.

For this reason, and because the purpose of a brief survey or question in a Telling context is in part to create a new opportunity for viewers to interact with the content, such mini-surveys should not be open-ended, but should be formatted as a radio button multiple choice, a ranking of three to five brief items, or another simple response activity.  While even the most diehard Telling online engagement initiative should allow open commenting somewhere on the site, written comments here will again create the mistaken impression that a higher level of public engagement is desired.  Again, the point here is certainly not that public engagement should be limited, but that if the project leadership or agency is unwilling or unable to accommodate more open public engagement, enabling limited feedback opportunities is preferable to creating expectations that the agency does not intend to keep.

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