Community Engagement Guide: The Best Strategies for a Collaborative Democracy

What’s in this community engagement guide?

Within this guide you will find a primer on Collaborative Democracy, elaborating on the modern day evolution of public sector decision making. We’ll also take a look at trends and drivers transforming government, and how a unified approach to community engagement utilizes technology to empower government and people.


Chapter 1: The Evolution of Public Sector Decision Making

Democracy is an emergent phenomenon that has evolved over time and continues to do so. Amid the constant and ever- present circumstances of change, we believe that collaborative democracy- through community engagement- is the next phase in the evolution of democracy itself.

We can see this evolution of democracy over the course of time:

Overcoming countless setbacks, democracy has typically progressed through war and political will, making steady progress in giving voice to more people. More frequent interactions between people and government has always called for new systems (i.e. the electoral college).

For collaborative democracy to emerge, we need more than just political will, we need new systems.

The Path Towards Democracy As A Marker Of History

The history of democracy is still being written, and its progress depends on embracing a greater role of community engagement in decision making and applying technology as a means to create widespread, uniform opportunities for community engagement. In doing so, we can govern more inclusively, equitably, and effectively. Likewise, technology also provides the opportunity to create a two-way relationship with residents and the ability to tell clear community stories.

Let’s take a closer look at some transformational drivers that have the potential to change how government operates.

4 Key Themes from the IBM Center for The Business of Government

The IBM Center for The Business of Government recently conducted research among current and former government leader to identify seven drivers that will be transforming government in the years to come. Below, we’ve distilled those drivers and applied the key themes to one of government’s most important components: community engagement.


  • Agility – Adopting new ways for government to operate, using agile principles and putting user experiences and program results at the forefront
  • Engagement – Fostering a citizen-driven government through real-time, interactive feedback to engage, co-create, and co-produce services and programs 
  • Insight –  increased reliance on data, evidence and analytics to create insights that influence decision making, actions and results. Evidence-based policy and decision-making.
  • Effectiveness – Applying enterprise approaches to achieve better outcomes, operational efficiency and a leaner government 

The Immediate Need For More Agility In Community Engagement


The pandemic, political and civil unrest, weather related emergencies, and climate change: each of these represent some of the complex issues that require effective and responsive engagement with the public.

The success of the experience hinges on an agile community engagement process that allows governments to operate quickly and easily. To be agile, teams must innovate within their community engagement process to challenge the status quo and shift the paradigm of how engagement is approached.

An Agile Community Engagement Model Includes the Following Values:


1. Valuing people and interactions over processes and tools

Rules that allow language translation upon request at least 7 days prior to a meeting is not an agile process. As an example, requesting an interpreter relies on the internal process of staff, not the needs of people with limited English proficiency. To be agile, governments may leverage technology to help support the immediate multilingual translation and interpretation needs.

2. Transparent systems over comprehensive documentation

Over the past decades, millions of documents have made their way onto government websites. Thinking with the constituent in mind, this philosophy encourages us to create systems that surface the most relevant information in a dynamic way. Take for example, a system of “open government” that gives every citizen the right to bear witness to the work being done, review records, and lend their voice.

A community engagement solution should make it easy for residents to search meeting records, provide comments, and view information specific to their interests – without requiring them to understand complex websites and systems.
3. Collaboration Over Negotiation

Government organizations may use a handful of tactics to engagement the public. These tactics may include an online survey, a public hearing, or posting a draft document on the website. While a good practice, none of the above on their own are a best practice.

That’s because government staff may find themselves “negotiating” on a case by case basis to offer print materials or accept email comments in lieu of viewing documents online or attending a hearing in person.


To be agile, a multi-tactic approach that unifies the community engagement process is needed to help meet people where they are.

Summary: Agile Community Engagement

Building an agile government means moving away from the status quo. When it comes to community engagement this means getting creative about the approach to data collection and the process of insight development.

When applied to the public engagement process, the “demand for insight” creates a culture of data-driven decision making that relies heavily on a unified community engagement process that makes collecting, analyzing, and sharing data quick and easy… or agile.

Engagement:  Looking To Collaboration & Real-Time Insights

Adjusting the culture of community engagement has the power to accelerate trust building, efficiency, effectiveness, and true data-driven decision-making. Let’s take a closer look at what that shift could mean for better community engagement outcomes.

Community Engagement Culture & Challenges To the Status Quo

A community engagement paradigm shift that includes agile values and principles is all about culture change, which is no small feat. Only recently has a need for change started to come to the forefront- largely in part to the 2020 global pandemic paired with civil and political unrest.

One example of how the 2020 pandemic moved the “culture” of community engagement has been the shift in legislation and practice from in-person to include virtual townhalls and/or hybrid public meeting formats.

Communtiy engagement examples of a “cultural shift”:

• Policy: Sunshine law updates incorporated virtual engagement tactics

• Priorities/Oversight: showing an increased priority on equity and accountability

• Roles & Responsibilities: accessibility and inclusion as an expectations among the public

• A new demand for virtual engagement options

• An expectation for multilingual translations and interpretations

• Multi-tactic approaches to engagement (text, phone, email, etc.)

Summary: Collaborative Engagement & Actionable Insights

When we “go through the motions” of community engagement, we leave no room for data to tell community stories to make better decisions. By contrast, community engagement can drive actionable insight when data is unified and easily managed.

• Insight offers the power to gain understanding from data, people, or a situation not immediately evident on the surface.
• Insight enables leaders to uncover a solution and act based on keen and clear observation.
• Observation, however, does not lead immediately to insight. Government leaders must make interpretations shaped by context, knowledge, and the experience of decision makers— implicit knowledge, often built up after years of experience.
–“Seven Drivers Transforming Government”

An innovative community engagement process that places a high value on insight that is both meaningful and relevant is key to this cultural shift away from the activity of data generation.

Community Engagement Software for Actionable Insights

Tell Clear Community Stories with PublicInput


  • Develop community driven strategies
  • Prioritize equity in community engagement
  • Leverage technology for real-time, interactive community engagement and collaboration

Effectiveness: Increasing Operational Efficiency For Staff & Residents

When looking for examples of community engagement, many people think of a town hall or council meeting with a public comment period. Others may point to government initiatives around transportation or environmental projects where governments seek input or feedback from impacted residents.

But what if community engagement could be a 24/7/365 service between government and their constituents? On the surface, daily engagement sounds like a pretty massive undertaking. Could this system be accomplished, and what benefits can be realized for a government and a community engaged in on-demand collaboration around important policy issues, or the ongoing business of government?

The answer surrounds a system of governing with an ongoing goal to be more responsive, inclusive and effective, both in terms of staff operations and community engagement results.

Such effectiveness has been demonstrated through the use of technology across government agencies— known as the adoption of enterprise solutions— to deliver mission-support services seamlessly across program and organizational boundaries.

As the IBM report states: “…the future of government performance relies not simply on greater efficiency, but also on increasing capacity to work effectively.”

View community engagement case studies >

How Do These Themes Apply to Community Engagement?

We saw foreshadowing of the need- and effectiveness- of technology to meet resident where they are during the COVID-19 pandemic. At the onset, it created a critical challenge to state and local agencies who were left without in-person community engagement options.

Efforts to provide online deliberations without a dedicated community engagement platform or solution proved ineffective to accomplish community engagement and to comply with state open government laws. In many jurisdictions, it took a corps of talented and hard-working CIOs and IT departments to enable their jurisdiction to carry out the basic function of community engagement online.

As the pandemic continued, governing bodies adopted some form of information and communication technologies for their deliberations. Today, a new era of community engagement and representative democracy is emerging through the use of dedicated community engagement platforms.

The New Era Of Community Engagement 

From these community engagaement platforms, governments are realizing the potential for blending virtual and conventional approaches—and their benefit to increase and diversify participation. Data collected through the use of an all-in-one community engagement platform to organize and centralize community engagement are creating more effective processes that can be realized across multiple departments.

To achieve positive, significant, and lasting change, government leaders must focus on sound implementation. The focus on implementation involves the meaningful integration of operations across agencies via an enterprise approach.
– IBM Center for the Business of Government

Governments should consider what an enterprise approach to community engagement could look like with a 24/7/365 community engagement process. It will take a rethinking of how we use technology and how we define community engagement.

Chapter 3: Unified Community Engagement

We live in a world where technology permeates almost every aspect of our daily lives. With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at how community engagement approaches fueled by technology have and will impact the day-to-day work of community engagement practioners.

When it comes to communication and information, the Pew Research Center reports:

The impacts of technological innovation in the public and private sectors continue to grow at a rapid pace. In state and local government, whether it be virtual public meetings, investments in vehicle-to-everything (V2X) applications supported by 5G or working to decide how best to incorporate technology into the built environment, there is no going back to exclusively “conventional” methods.

When it comes to community engagement, meeting the public’s expectations to connect virtually is now the norm. 

For planners, elected officials and community engagement practitioners, there is a lot at stake as they work towards engaging the public in a concerted and meaningful way for more informed decision making. Oftentimes disjointed, there is growing interest and desire by governing bodies to shift away from traditional and fragmented approaches to a more unified approach to community engagement via virtual technology solutions.

A Disjointed Approach To Community Engagement

For many, a disjointed community engagement approach—even with the use of technology—involved an elaborate web of pieced together tools, apps, platforms, and manual workarounds to connect and share information.

Under this disjointed model, every tactic has its own tool or solution creating multiple, sometimes duplicative, tasks resulting in increased costs and decreased efficiency.

Here are a few costs of a disjointed community engagement approach:

• Requires manual compilation of data from multiple sources
• Increased delays to the project and decision-making
• Siloed information leading to communication gaps
• Decreased ability to manage and demonstrate compliance around participation, equity, representation, and transparency
• Increased disconnect between residents and the decision-makers
• Increased risk of losing or misinterpreting data

While it “functions,” disjointed combinations of multiple technologies compound inefficiencies and become a detriment to timely decision-making processes.

Opportunity Costs Of A Disjointed Approach

Employing disjointed and inaccessible approaches to engagement results in a double loss for government agencies. The first, is missing the opportunity to capture valuable input from the community. Second, and probably the most impactful, is that the missing input increases the likelihood that governments will make a decision that does not fit their entire community or is based on an incomplete narrative.

A Unified Community Engagement Approach

A unified approach to community engagement utilizes technology that empowers governments and consultants with a comprehensive communication and data management platform.

Technology that unifies community engagement enables project teams to launch a concerted engagement strategy, communicate, build momentum, collaborate (virtually and in-person), and close the feedback loop using one platform solution.

An all-in-one community engagement platform should increase efficiency and support inclusive, data-driven decision-making. When paired with traditional tactics like in-person meetings, community engagement software accelerates the development of public trust and enables governments to be compliant with open government laws and community inclusion standards.

Recap: The PublicInput Solution

Choosing the right community engagement software for your community 

1. Collaborative democracy is emerging just in time.

Collaborative democracy, as the next phase in the evolution of democracy, will move forward not through more war, but rather through technological innovation.

2. Government processes are transforming.

The future of the government process of community engagement hinges on the ability for practitioners to consider the transformative factors of agility, engagement, insight and effectiveness as they move forward.

3. Technology is expanding our reach.  

A unified community engagement approach when paired with traditional tactics like in-person meetings accelerates the development of public trust and enables governments to increase efficiency, compliance, inclusivity, and data-driven decision making.

PublicInput believes collaborative democracy succeeds through technology. Purpose-built for government agencies, PublicInput is community engagement software that unlocks the ability to increase operational efficiency, build public trust, and defend civic decisions with data. Download a printable version of this community engagement guide.

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So you’ve gone above and beyond to promote your public meetings, you’ve targeted neighborhoods on Facebook, and you’ve leveraged our meeting tools to foster productive dialog.

But are you sure you’ve reached the residents who need your project the most?

Engage using standard survey question formats that you’re used to with consumer survey tools. From the single and multi-select, to Likert, slider, and text input formats, you’ve got the basics covered.

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