Running virtual community engagement sessions
Before Covid-19, we mostly ran community climate action engagement sessions face-to-face in town halls, community halls and the like. This approach ended abruptly in March this year, but the community’s desire to see action on climate has not.
To respond to this situation, our business, our local government clients, as well as their communities, have rapidly upskilled in the use of virtual conferencing tools like Zoom, Skype or Microsoft Teams. In addition, polling and other interactive software can be used to increase engagement, collaborate and capture communities’ needs and ideas for a clean energy future. We even started to use Zoom to deliver energy audits via online delivery, without us needing to be at the site physically.
Many of the benefits of delivering interactive community engagement online are obvious for us and our local government clients. No posters have to be created and printed. There are no venue hire or use costs, and staff do not have to work after hours multiple times. Travel time and costs are reduced, and there are no catering costs. All of this leads to a lower carbon footprint to deliver services, and workshops can be repeated many more times in a shorter timeframe.
However, to make virtual community climate action engagement workshops truly valuable as an alternative to the face-to-face town hall approach (or, in future, a complementary approach), the quality of the engagement needs to be as good online as it is face-to-face.
We have worked closely with our clients to make this happen. The purpose of this blog post is to share our seven key learnings of running virtual community engagement sessions.
Seven key learnings when engaging the community in online workshops
- Keep it short
- Define objectives and messaging
- Preparation is key
- Keep it interesting and engaging
- Do test runs
- Measure your success
- Capture learnings
1 Keep it short
With many people working full-time online and often from home, concentrating on one thing for more than 45 minutes to an hour is difficult. We have found it is best to keep community engagement sessions as short as possible.
For recent business and community engagement sessions for the City of Newcastle, we kept both sessions to one hour each. People were able to stay fully engaged, participate during their working day, and schedule the session among their other commitments.
2 Clearly define objectives and messaging
As with any workshop planning, you need to start with these two questions
- Who are you communicating to?
- What do you want to achieve from the engagement session?
If your Council is planning to use online engagement for climate action planning, the number of participants, language and structure will be different when communicating to businesses, as opposed to the general public. Ensuring your communication plan notes your target audiences and your overall objectives, and tailors how and what you will communicate is key to setting up for a successful online session.
3 Preparation is key
The following questions might help you plan your engagement session:
- How will you market the event?
- Will you survey the community ahead of the engagement session, and what will you ask them?
- How will you handle registrations?
- What content do you need to organise before the event?
- How will you measure success?
- Will you record the session, and do you need permission for this?
- How will you follow up with participants?
- Will you ask for feedback via your ‘Have your Say’ page, thank you emails, etc.?
- Do you need to line up other people to help with the event management?
- What will be the run sheet?
- What notes will you and your speakers need to have during the session?
4 Keep it interesting and engaging throughout
‘Death by PowerPoint’ is definitely to be avoided. It is important to mix things up, to have different speakers, to use multimedia and most importantly, to give the audience a voice.
To give everyone a voice, if you have more than five people, use polling software to solicit input as well as discussion. Ask questions regularly during the session, displayed to participants, and have the community respond using their phones or their web browsers. Asking questions at specific junctions helps to ensure that energy levels are kept high.
If you have large groups, it can help to use ‘break-out room’ functions to get small groups to discuss topics and bring their insights, ideas or feedback to the wider group or to interactive polling or pinboards.
It also makes sense for the facilitator to monitor the chat so that issues and questions can be addressed in real time. An assistant can also perform this role, and raise key questions or themes to the facilitator for a response.
For sessions where only a select number of participants are present, such as with business engagement sessions, it works well to get participants to share their stories.
5 Do test runs
Practice makes perfect. You should run through the whole session as a small team to test whether it all aligns, how the energy flows during the session components, that all links and audio works, that links to videos, interactive polling and pinboards works, that break-out room functionality works, what the holding slide looks like, whether the timing works, handing over between speakers, testing the technical functionality – make sure everyone is familiar with it.
6 Measure your success
Define your measures of success upfront in your communication plan. Good measures of success are:
Before the engagement session:
- Number of registrations
During the engagement session:
- Number of people who participated
- How many people stayed throughout the duration of the workshop as opposed to drop-outs.
- Level of engagement
After the engagement session:
- Social media chatter
- Email feedback
7 Capture learnings
Every community engagement session yields new insights which can be used to make the next community engagement better than the previous. There is always room for improvement and for achieving excellence. What is important is that there is a debrief, in which learnings are shared amongst your team. Example of questions you can ask yourself are:
- What worked, what didn’t?
- Did the timing work?
- Have the objectives of the engagement session been met?
- Has the engagement delivered the desired results?
- What information is being shared on social media post the event?
- Have participants sent through any feedback emails?
- What could we do better next time?
Case study – Community engagement for the new Climate Action Plan of the City of Newcastle
The City of Newcastle is currently updating its strategic approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and their city-wide move to a low carbon economy. This involves the revision and renewal of the existing 2020 Carbon and Water Management Action Plan, which has completed its term. The revised document will be published as the ‘2025 Climate Action Plan’.
The new Action Plan will account for Council’s achievements over the last decade, set new targets and outline innovative and sustainable programs. It will outline specific goals and priorities for the next five years and will provide a roadmap to achieve positive impacts such as:
- Clean energy
- Resource efficiency
- Reducing emissions in the supply chain
- Sustainable transport
- Emissions targets
- Vision for a low carbon city
As part of engaging the community in the development of this plan, 100% Renewables was hired to design and run two community engagement sessions, one for businesses, the other for the wider population. The purpose of the workshops was to gain the community’s opinions and ideas during the strategy development before the draft Plan goes to Public Exhibition later this year.
Given that many of the City’s emissions come from industry, a business roundtable was organised with about 20 participants. The session started with Barbara, our Co-CEO, providing context around the development of the plan and by showing examples of best practice of global cities.
Then, Jonathan Wood from the NSW Government talked about the NSW’s Net Zero Plan, after which, Adam Clarke, Program Coordinator in the City Innovation and Sustainability, talked about council’s actions and what they have achieved thus far. Newcastle is the first council in NSW to achieve the status of being 100% renewable. Adam also showed an example of how the community can track towards net zero based on a model that we developed.
We also invited Hunter Water, MolyCop and the Uni of Newcastle to share their sustainability journey, which was received very well. After the formal presentations, we hosted a roundtable discussion to identify opportunities for how council and businesses can collaborate to achieve a net-zero emissions outcome.
Throughout the session, participants engaged by using the chat function, and by answering our polling questions.
Community information session
Ahead of the community information session, we asked the community to submit their top three topics and questions that they would like to see covered in the information session. More than 50 contributions were received which helped to shape the workshop.
On the day, around 80 people participated in the information session. Just like with the business roundtable, we had Jonathan talk about the NSW Net Zero Plan and Adam shared what council has achieved thus far. Regularly throughout the sessions, we polled the community to provide feedback and to get input on how council and the community can share the burden to achieve a net-zero emissions outcome.
At the end of the workshop, participants provided feedback via the chat function. Here are a couple of examples that was received:
- “Thank you Barbara, Jonathan and Adam, really appreciate your time and City of Newcastle – excellent info session, looking forward to the next step in addressing the climate emergency – local govt plays a critical role in this, so it’s heartening to see CN taking a leadership role. “
- “Thanks all, great presentation!”
- “Thank you, a very interesting & new way of having a meeting!”
100% Renewables are experts in helping local governments develop their operational as well as their community climate change strategies and action plans. If you need help with community engagement, modelling emission reduction scenarios or establishing the carbon footprint of your community, please contact Barbara or Patrick.
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