Outline Outreach vs Online Engagement: Different and Essential for Public Participation


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The White House made history when it launched its first website in 1994, a time when the Internet was still just “kind of a thing,” as noted by The Washington Post—which pokes some fun at the now laughable web design. In his online welcome message, then Vice President Al Gore says that “electronic communication like this is of course changing the way we communicate, work, and learn.”

Barely two decades later, that feels like an understatement.  Today it’s hard to even imagine a government agency—federal, state or local—actually not having a website. It’s pretty much expected they’ll also have a social media presence, which is remarkable when you consider Facebook didn’t exist before 2004.

No doubt, online communications have come a long way in a short time and government agencies have been expected to keep pace. Of course, as with any emerging field, there’s a learning curve. Perhaps one of the most common missteps government agencies make is confusing online outreach tools for online engagement tools—two distinct but equally important components of any solid communications strategy.


So, what’s the difference?

Simply put, online outreach is about getting the word out to the community—and online engagement is about actually giving people a chance to participate. Some of the key differences can be summed up in the chart below:

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Another key difference is that input collected via online engagement is often treated like formal feedback—so, decision-makers consider it similar to opinions expressed during a public hearing or workshop. That’s typically not true for any opinions that might result from online outreach.

Beyond that, online engagement sets the expectation that input will somehow impact the final decision. Online outreach usually doesn’t set that expectation.


Why you need both.

In today’s busy world, a lot of folks don’t have time for mid-week public meetings—and with modern technology, there’s not necessarily a reason they should. After all, people can now earn a degree, shop for a house and find their next mate without leaving the couch. Why shouldn’t they be able to engage with their government online?

Increasingly, that’s a trend we’re seeing as more and more government agencies realize they need to go a step beyond online outreach, and actually give people a way to engage online.

“It feels like communities everywhere are wanting more from their cities,” says Nole Walkingshaw, who serves as the Civic Engagement and Innovations Manager for Salt Lake City.

His agency has risen to the occasion by launching Open City Hall, an online civic engagement platform from Peak Democracy that lets the public give input on all sorts of important government issues and projects—which ultimately impacts the decisions that are made.

“Open City Hall has empowered all our departments to be more proactive in public engagement, and the offering of a tool helps those departments where they may not have internal expertise or support. Thus, we create a culture where public engagement on big issues is the expectation—and not the exception.”
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Of course, online engagement doesn’t make online outreach obsolete. In fact, it makes it more necessary. Online engagement is only worthwhile if people know about it—which is where online outreach tools come in.

Salt Lake City has made a habit of finding, and even creating, ways for their online outreach and online engagement to work in harmony.

“Open City Hall creates a centralized place where we can gather formal feedback and direct the community to and from social media and email services,” Nole explains, adding that this type of cross-promotion helps “drive the culture of engagement.”


Looking ahead.

Just as websites and social media are now the norm for local government, it’s easy to imagine a not-too-distant future where online engagement is a standard expectation, too.

In fact, it’s not hard to believe that in another decade or two, this very article will feel outdated as we all have a fuzzy memories of a time back when online civic engagement was “still just kind of a thing.”


Guest author Marlena Medford is the Director of Government Outreach and Communications for Peak Democracy, which offers a line of civic engagement software designed to help government broaden participation in ways that public trust. A former journalist and communications officer, Medford now helps government agencies across the US, Canada and Australia build and sustain online public participation.

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