The Participation Blog

The Ultimate Pitfall of Online Public Engagement

Online Public EngagementWe have all been there. Our clients want the latest and greatest online participation tools—not to enhance their programs, but to replace the need to actually get out and meet with stakeholders. The risks with online public engagement are great.

Online tools are obviously great at many things: reaching a lot of people, allowing for input by anyone at any time, sharing detailed information in graphical and visual ways, and synthesizing and collating large-scale input data among others. What online engagement and really much of social media lacks, however, is the ability to build meaningful human relationships.

In fact, science has been looking at this for some time now and the results are in: online relationships are less valuable than offline relationships. In fact, the net benefit of online relationships is directly related to whether they are used to enhance or substitute for offline social relationships. This has substantial implications for not only online public engagement, but perhaps more so for public participation.

The longer I do this work, the more I realize that we are in the relationship business. No amount of information helps people to see a different point of view unless they also have the opportunity to create relationships with others to understand those different views. In a shared relationship, we are motivated to find common ground. In a (small p) political process, we are only motivated to win.

Public participation is about the search for solutions that satisfy the concerns and values of the whole community. That requires dialogue, relationships and trust building. As of yet, we have not been able to create those environments to a robust level online. Tweeting is not leading and Facebook does not create meaningful online public engagement. Get out and get to know your stakeholders and let them get to know you. Then we can truly work together to start solving the problems we face.

With those meaningful relationships in place, you will find that crafting your online tools to augment your in-person work will not only make more sense but provide you with dramatically more impactful results.


Author: Doug Sarno