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BD Giving Notes – #17 ‘Building A Digital Platform For Community Engagement’

For any organisation that wants to connect with people, online engagement is both important and a potential strain on money and resources.... People being so central to our work, our aim has always been to favour in-person participation when we can. We feel that face-to-face interaction is most suited to building relationships, confidence and collaboration.

Having had a break from my computer this summer (what a feeling!), I have still been able to reflect on how we, at BD Giving, use digital tools to build engagement around our activities. This Note outlines some thoughts about digital participation and how we’re thinking of digital tools as a means to scale up our engagement in Barking and Dagenham. 

For any organisation that wants to connect with people, online engagement is both important and a potential strain on money and resources. When done well, it can increase an organisation’s profile, build trust, and generate new ‘leads’. But developing a digital platform can bear significant costs from development to maintenance, and equally could have a negative impact on an organisation’s resources. 

People being so central to our work, our aim has always been to favour in-person participation when we can. We feel that face-to-face interaction is most suited to building relationships, confidence and collaboration. Yet, we also recognise that there is potential to increase our reach through online participation, both as a way to build on our in-person engagement, as well as to address some of its shortcomings. 

This is not to say that we do not use digital tools currently. Like most people since the pandemic, we have had to think carefully about how we can deliver our work remotely. We are heavy Zoom and Teams users, and we have grown used to delivering online workshops with groups of varying size. We are fans of Consider.it, an online dialogue tool that we have been using to support our fund designs, and the decision-making process around them. We have also had reasonable success engaging other practitioners on social media, including on Linkedin and Twitter, though perhaps less so with the Barking and Dagenham community. 

As we have grown our activities in recent months, specifically around the Community Endowment Fund, it’s become clear we have an opportunity to scale up our engagement and involve a larger pool of people in our work. This has triggered a reexamination of our existing self-built WordPress website, whether it could (or should) be built up to enable digital participation, or on which technology it could be built and – importantly – at what cost.   

A key question is whether a participatory experience can be delivered through a centralised engagement platform, or whether we should keep using multiple tools and applications delivering very specific features. Both options have their advantages and drawbacks of course. For instance, a single platform like Decidim offers a variety of features that can support citizen participation, from strategic planning to participatory budgeting, assemblies and consultations. The centralised nature of the platform means that it’s easier to collect data on participation too, and to align with our data protection policy. But deploying such platforms requires both time and expertise and their features may not support all of the organisation’s needs. Using multiple tools, on the other hand, provides the flexibility of selecting only the features that we need, but makes the data collection more challenging, and increases the risk of data loss. 

According to the Civic Tech Guide, which describes itself as the ‘world’s largest collection of projects using tech for the common good’, there are hundreds of such tools in the civic space. In selecting the one(s) that are fit for our purpose, we need a clear vision of what it should achieve, who our audience is, and what drives them to engage (or not). Importantly, we need to have a clear sense of how digital participation can add to the face-to-face engagement we do, e.g. by making participation more accessible to those who cannot meet face to face, for various sets of reasons. 

Any participatory process raises questions around fairness and inclusivity and our Community Steering Group (CSG) is no exception to this. Questions like how are participants recruited and selected, what kind of support systems are built around participation (e.g. payments, timing of meetings etc.), as well as how to ensure that participants do not become gate-keepers themselves.

As we move toward deploying our participatory platform online, these questions will be at the forefront of our mind. We’d love to know what’s worked for you. Please get in touch via: hello@bdgiving.org.uk 

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