The (Surprising!) Benefits of Virtual Engagement

by Charvi Gupta

You might think that the COVID-19 pandemic would spell disaster for public engagement. How can we get input from the public when we can’t even gather together in one room? Well, it turns out that public participation is alive and well, even in the COVID era. How? Through virtual engagement.

New York’s shelter-in-place order in mid-March meant that we at Highland Planning had to act quickly and creatively to keep our clients’ community engagement plans on track. By shifting gears from in-person public meetings and pop-up engagement events to online interaction, we were able to keep the ball rolling on important infrastructure and economic development projects across New York State.

In fact, we saw a number of benefits from our virtual engagement efforts:

Virtual engagement boosts participation.

At our virtual public meeting for Seneca County’s Cayuga-Seneca Canalway Trail project in April, we saw higher attendance than we had at an in-person meeting in January. We found that holding a meeting via Zoom offers the benefits of being able to participate at a moment’s notice from the comfort of your own home – and even in your pajamas if you wish!

Virtual one-on-one conversations lead to deeper insights.

Because social distancing guidelines prevented us from holding in-person committee meetings, we instead held one-on-one interviews with each committee member as part of the Resilient New York program. The benefit: plenty of time for personalized, in-depth dialogue and insights that we might not have heard in a group setting.

Social media is a familiar and transparent platform.

Highland Planning hosted a live public webinar with more than 170 participants to advance the Village of Lancaster’s Downtown Roundabouts project. Nearly 50% of the participants joined via Facebook live, and comments were visible to all in real time.

Of course, sometimes it just works better to gather people together in person on issues that are critical to the community. Until public health guidelines allow for pop-ups, in-person public meetings, door-to-door outreach, and other face-to-face interactions, virtual engagement is a substitute that comes with its own benefits.

How have you used virtual public engagement to advance your community participation efforts during the COVID era? What do you see as the future for online engagement?

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