A survey will yield different answers and reach different audiences than a straightforward vote or a participatory budget – it’s, therefore, crucial to pick the engagement method that’s best aligned with your goal. Here’s a list of the main engagement venues we’ve tested and approved after working with 400+ local governments and organizations worldwide.

This blog post is an excerpt from our free guide 6 methods of online consultation.

Examples of community engagement methods

Polling: a low-effort way to gauge community members’ opinions on a defined topic

Polling is probably the most low-effort and low-threshold type of public participation. It involves putting a specific topic up for debate, predefining possible answers, and letting community members pick their preferred option. This topic doesn’t necessarily have to be a part of a wider project or campaign. Polls or votes strengthen legitimacy by ensuring that a majority of inhabitants support the projects. The results of the vote are not necessarily binding: some local governments counterbalance it with other factors such as price or ecological footprint.

It’s quick, easy, can be done digitally, and can even include binary options. That said, polls leave little room for nuance and are mainly supposed to gauge the broader public opinion on a certain topic.

This is an option to consider if:

  • You have a specific question or topic in mind that you’d like to present to your community members;
  • This initial question can be asked in a neutral way in order not to influence the answers that will be given;
  • You clearly explains to residents how the vote will be taken into account – will it fully dictate the choice?
  • You needs a quick sense of direction and insight into the broader public opinion;

A practical example: The city of Kortrijk launched a poll to decide on the implementation of a monthly car-free Sunday. The case received much media attention as residents as young as 16 were allowed to vote (while the official voting age in Belgium is 18).

Online surveys: collecting detailed and nuanced information

Surveys give you the option to hear from residents on specific topics in a more comprehensive way than voting. It, for instance, allows for proposal ranking, multiple-choice questions, demographic questions… Combined with voting, the survey is very useful in understanding how community members’ priorities vary according to their location, age or income.

Surveys can give more precise results, but they also come at a cost. First of all, the consultation is not collaborative and/or open. Secondly, the way the survey is carried out, and the data is stored and used must be strictly controlled. It’s also important to remember that the longer the survey, the higher the drop-out rate will be. Finally, participation rates for surveys are usually lower than for voting because of the higher time input they require from residents.

This is an option to consider if:
  • You want to know better what residents think;
  • There is no other way to collect this information (is there another source of data that could be used? Has there been a similar investigation in the past?);
  • The information collected is necessary to will really help decision-making (will the city use all the information collected? How? Is the information being collected to inform decision-making, or to justify it?);

A practical example: the city of Arlon used a survey to survey its inhabitants about the Leopold Space project. The open-ended questions provided feedback and new ideas. After crowdsourcing ideas, the city asked residents to vote for the ones they thought should be implemented.

Participatory budgeting: including community members and associations in the allocation of part of the municipal budget

Participatory budgets are a very powerful tool for participation, as they directly involve community members in allocating municipal budgets. Residents choose projects they think the city should invest in, using money from a specially allocated fund. Some cities ask their community to divide the budget between several scenarios, others start with an ideation process followed by an analysis and budgeting phase.

This type of consultation is very educational as it allows community members to project themselves into the budget exercise and to understand its constraints – for instance, if they decide to allocate 60% of their budget to a certain project, they then agree to reduce funding for other projects. This exercise helps strengthen the legitimacy of decision-making and increases support for public policies.

Budget allocation can of course be a sensitive issue. For cities that wish to restrict participation, there is authentication software (such as ItsMe in Belgium or FranceConnect in France) to ensure that each user corresponds to a natural person residing in the municipality.

This is an option to consider if:
  • Elected officials wish to raise the community’s awareness of municipal management processes;
  • The conditions for the implementation of the participatory budget are clear;
  • The projects proposed are feasible, and there is a budget to allocate;
  • You seek to prioritize several projects and allocate a budget rather than choosing a project from several options.

A practical example: Ghent, known for its beautiful market squares and stunning medieval city center, is the capital of the Belgian province of East-Flanders. With more than 260,000 inhabitants, it charmingly combines the hustle and bustle of a bigger city with a small town’s cozy atmosphere. Aiming to optimize the city’s neighborhoods, Ghent launched a participatory budgeting project, freeing a whopping budget of 6.25 million euros.

Ghent’s inhabitants were asked to reflect on the neighborhoods they frequent and share their ideas on the city’s platform. Anything goes, but to be considered for implementation, projects need to be supported by the neighborhoods’ inhabitants and reasonably implementable within two years.

Idea collection: helping new solutions emerge

Also called “ideation process” or crowdsourcing, this is a way for local governments to turn to community members for new ideas regarding predefined topics. Idea gathering is a more complex process than a simple vote and requires greater involvement from residents. As a result, participation rates tend to be lower than for votes, but can also lead to qualitative contributions and the emergence of new solutions.

Once the ideation phase is complete, cities often go through an analysis phase and a voting phase: after having collected the ideas, the administration then processes them and submits them to a community vote. It is important to structure the debate: it is preferable to define the themes on which you consult your community (climate, mobility, education…) and to be clear about which criteria will be used to select ideas.

This is an option to consider if:
  • Elected officials want to bring out new solutions and investigate what their community members prioritize.
  • The quality of contributions matters more than their quantity.
  • There is a clear plan in place to process and select the ideas, and you communicate this to your community.
  • You’re committed to providing feedback on the ideas submitted by residents, and take the contributions seriously.

A practical example: Grand Paris Sud used this process to gather new ideas from its inhabitants on three areas of its strategic plan: cycling, the environment and culture. The city is now focused on turning these ideas into real projects.

Citizen Proposals: allowing citizens to share own ideas outside of participation projects

As citizens are becoming increasingly empowered, citizen-led change is on the rise everywhere. Citizen Proposals are a continuous form of bottom-up citizen participation that doesn’t fit within the constraints of a specific timeline or policy cycle. Citizens or grassroots movements can write down their plans or suggestions for the government at any time, on any topic, and gather support for their statements, mainly by collecting signatures. If they reach a certain threshold (that was set by the government in advance), they are supposed to receive an official response.

This type of participation method allows citizens to address the topics that are close to their hearts and start a structured debate, while still offering governments a way to stay in control. In the case of Citizen Proposals, citizens set the agenda, but governments can easily keep track of the matters that citizens deem important and adjust their strategies accordingly. The Citizen Proposals feature was recently launched on the Go Vocal platforms.

This is an option to consider if:

  • The city aims to build a continuous dialogue with its citizens, outside of policy cycles, timelines or project frameworks;
  • The city wants to gain insight into what citizens find important;
  • There are clear eligibility criteria in place that manage expectations and define which initiatives require action.

A practical example: A famous (Belgian) example of a successful citizen initiative stems from 2005, when the Doof Actie Front (Deaf Action Front) gathered over 71,330 signatures in favour of the official recognition of Flemish Sign Language. In 2006, their wish was granted.

Citizens’ Assemblies: asking citizens to deliberate on topics and possible action

A Citizens’ Assembly is a representative group of citizens (representing the wider population in terms of age, ethnicity, education level, geographic location, and gender) asked to come together, learn about a certain topic and formulate a policy recommendation for the government. In the first phase, these citizens are introduced to the matter at hand through talks with competing interest groups, stakeholders and experts. They gradually move into the deliberation phase, which involves small-group debates or larger, more general discussions. The citizens’ assembly is supposed to conclude with a clear policy recommendation to the administration.

By tapping into the collective intelligence of a diverse group of citizens, the system of citizens’ assemblies has the potential to open up frozen or polarised debates. Besides, it offers citizens a way to gain deeper insight into the complexities of policy-making, and governments a clear road ahead that is (hopefully) supported by a majority of the wider population.

This is an option to consider if:

  • The city is willing to establish assemblies and to implement the policy recommendations;
  • The city is looking for a way to open up difficult or polarised debates in a constructive way;
  • The citizens in the assembly receive sufficient and relevant information for valuable deliberation;
  • The citizens selected for the assembly represent the population as a whole.

A practical example: The German-speaking region of Belgium recently launched a permanent citizens’ council. 24 randomly chosen german-speaking citizens offer elected officials advice on which issues matter, and which issue requires a citizen assembly. In this Ostbelgien Model, traditional decision-makers keep the final say, but citizens are allowed to come up with the agenda.

Participation methods on Go Vocal platform

Want to set-up an online participation project? Discover the different methods on our platform! Or download our free guide to learn more about consultation methods.