3 Keys to Launching Digital Communities That Achieve Citizen Engagement

Digital communities are dedicated spaces local governments can create and nurture to increase citizen engagement.


Though local government websites have become essential, people want to interact with their governments in apps, on service platforms and through digital communities.

But if you’re thinking this article is about tips for improving a Facebook “community” page or group, that is not what is meant by a digital community. When deciding to create a space for a digital community, the city of Golden, Colorado, immediately changed course on how they were operating their presence on social channels:

Social media was now viewed exclusively as a megaphone and became the backbone of their marketing efforts. A result of this new strategy was that there was no longer a set expectation to have a real-time, back and forth conversation through these channels,” wrote Casey Earp, engagement manager at Bang the Table, for ELGL.

It’s no surprise that online access to government has only grown since .gov became a thing in 1985. Community engagement technologies can help local governments manage digital communities to increase citizen engagement and ultimately drive community-driven outcomes.

Learn three keys to launching digital communities, and why its different than social media management or using digital tools to address misinformation.

Why Golden Launched a Digital Community in 2018

Golden, a city west of Denver, has a population of about 20,000 people. According to Earp, the city, like a lot of local governments, used its city website, e-newsletters and various social media channels to maintain community communications.

But by the end of 2017, the city’s staff “reached a consensus that these tools were largely ineffective as productive engagement spaces” -- even with more than 13,000 followers on Facebook, 32 neighborhoods present on Nextdoor and 7,500+ Twitter followers.

The newer Guiding Golden digital community features more than two dozen active and archived conversations where digital community members connect directly with city staff, such as Golden’s Chief Innovation and Technology Officer Jiles McCoy in a Q&A discussion on broadband alternatives for enhancing Internet services.

3 Keys to Launching Digital Communities That Achieve Citizen Engagement

First Key: Build Trust By Fulfilling a Need

Building trust is not only helpful when local governments communicate during crises -- it’s essential to helping local governments function effectively. Any organization that builds a digital community is advised to do so to fulfill a need, according to the Media Cause blog in its 11 tips for building an online engaged community.

A local government can create a digital community to help its members stay informed, “feel safe, or proud or good” and in turn, inform their municipality on decision-making.

How can your local government best launch a digital community that fulfills a need for citizen engagement?

By focusing on a vision.

Digital communities build trust by being well-run, according to Vanessa DiMauro, CEO of Leader Networks, in a Q&A with digital strategist Barry Feldman. She recommends taking cues from the Edelman Trust Barometer, an annual global trust survey which measures attitudes about the state of trust in business, government, non-profits and the media. There are five performance clusters -- engagement, integrity, products & services, purpose and operations -- and online digital communities can address many of them, she said.

First she recommends creating a clear, aspirational vision statement that sets the tone for what a digital community will be about and how members should interact. DiMauro said she likes her digital community stakeholders to ideate using the following exercise:

Our community is the place for __________.

Members will benefit from __________ and _____________

and will be most excited when they can ____________ online.

City of Golden opens its digital community, Guiding Golden, with the below statement -- setting the tone immediately. What’s highlighted could fit into DiMauro’s visioning exercise for digital community stakeholders:

“City of Golden residents are our most important asset and having conversations with you is important. Guiding Golden lets you take the compass and help City Council and staff set the course for important projects taking place within the city. Ready? Let’s get moving!”

Second Key: Go to the People

The International City County Managers Association advised local governments with community engagement goals to raise voices in civic dialog to Go to the People:

“Change up how you gather community input. Go to where people hang out whether it is a physical gathering space, like a coffee shop or community center, or a ‘virtual’ space like Facebook or online neighborhood forums,” in a recent blog post about community engagement.

How do local governments find out where their communities are online?

That is not always an easy answer because cities have to account for all demographics, that comprise “different backgrounds, needs, values and aspirations,” according to the Queensland Government’s 2017 community engagement toolkit.

“When undertaking community engagement, consider how the needs of different community groups can be accommodated,” the toolkit advised, suggesting a process for engaging with specific groups that includes the following steps:

  • Identify local representatives
  • Provide smaller meeting opportunities
  • Work with existing community networks

For each community group, meet with them and find out where they are communicating. This is also the step where where social media -- the megaphone -- can come into play by supporting and directing various audiences to engage in the local government’s central digital community.

Design the local government’s digital community with all groups in mind.

“If members find your community uninteresting, manipulative or difficult to navigate, they simply won’t engage -- and the community will flounder,” according to Oracle’s Best Practices for Building Online Communities.

Third Key: Drive Sharing Through Connections

Community groups’ social channels can drive traffic to a local government’s digital community or community engagement platform.

According to Social Media Today’s 8 Best Practices for Online Communities, digital communities should be connected in as many ways as possible to internal and external stakeholders and community groups.

There should be appropriate linkages to any and all other Web properties, social media sites and email marketing. Every internal department (or almost) should have a presence, whether through individual participation or overt departmental representation (eg “member service desk”). If your (member-facing) staff aren’t using it, why would your members?”

How do local governments entice sharing content about their digital communities?

Calls to action (CTAs) are essential in outreach that drives participation:

  • Can you answer this question about broadband in your neighborhood?
  • Can you weigh in on this survey about the city’s budget?
  • Can you attend this workshop on transit needs?

Here’s an example where information, followed by a CTA with a link to the project on the digital community platform, posted to the city’s Facebook achieved 18 shares:

Got a story about your city’s dedicated digital community or platform? We’d like to hear about it. Reach out to editor@efficientgov.com.

Andrea Fox is Editor of Gov1.com and Senior Editor at Lexipol. She is based in Massachusetts.