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Emerging Practices for Virtual Community Engagement


Emerging Practices for Virtual Community Engagement

Virtual community engagement includes any engagement conducted outside of a physical meeting space, such as video conferencing, webinars, teleconferencing, social media, text and paper outreach. These practices can increase the number of participants by offering additional opportunities for involvement but should not replace opportunities to engage in-person if the options are safe. Although these practices expand options for participation, they should be utilized and designed with the user and target population in mind, as not all groups are able to access technology in the same way. The digital divide (i.e. the gap in access to information, communication, and broadband technology) precludes many low-income people, people of color, elderly and other important community members from accessing complex technological engagement such as webinars.

Consider numerous mechanisms for engagement to reach the most impacted and hard to reach populations, including social media tools such as Facebook Live which may be more accessible and widely used than videoconferencing technologies like Zoom.  Community engagement processes, regardless if they are virtual or in-person, should adhere to the framework and values previously discussed in the toolkit designed to foster inclusivity, authentic partnership, accessibility, meaningful engagement, and cultural humility. 

As discussed under “Inclusive and Intentional Engagement” and “Empowerment: Sharing Power and Capacity” sections, partnering with trusted community leaders and community-based organizations to co-design and receive feedback on the engagement process is an important step for building inclusive, accessible spaces for public participation.  This is also a critical step for virtual engagements given the varying degrees of access to technology and important insight that community partners bring in identifying the most effective approaches to reach a particular community.

In general, there are three overarching goals for hosting virtual meetings (applicable for in-person meetings as well):

  1. Learn by listening and gathering information from others
  2. Share information or analyses
  3. Hold a space for others to build connections and learn from one another and share.

 There are different tools available depending on the goal. 


  • Using surveys via online (including social media), through the telephone, or text. 
    • Ensure the survey is open and available for a long enough period of time for people to be noticed (see below for noticing practices) and respond.
    • Provide the survey in multiple languages.
    • Sharing demographic information can be threatening to some people. Make clear the intention of the survey and how the information will be used and shared. If the information isn’t relevant to the outcome, consider skipping specific demographic questions.
    • Have a phone number for people to call in case there are issues with the survey and make this available in multiple languages.
    • If the survey is collected online or through a phone application, consider how much data is used by participating; and design for low-data usage or “data lite” apps.
    • Ensure the survey is a reasonable length and not overly time consuming to complete.
    • Have a paper version of an online survey available in multiple languages, and publicize where and how paper surveys can be completed.
    • If telephone surveys are conducted, consider the potential for a mode effect bias. Pre-recorded phone interviews can garner more honest answers to sensitive questions than speaking directly to an interviewer.
  • Design matters for visualizing and interpreting data online.



Planning for Inclusive Virtual Meetings

  • Recognizing that civic engagement is highly correlated with income and formal education, whether the setting is in-person or virtual.[i]

    • Lower-income households are less likely to have access to adequate Internet than higher-income households, which makes virtual civic engagement more of a challenge for these groups.[ii]
    • Ensure a phone option is available as an alternative to accessing the Internet or for technical challenges (however please note, participants who join by phone will likely not have access to video interpretation services).
    • Make available a recorded presentation to allow people to view it when convenient. If you are recording a meeting, be sure to inform all participants it will be recorded and how it will be distributed.  
    • Make notes available from a meeting as a complement or alternative to providing a video recording.
    • Include a contact person on any notes or recording that is available later.
    • Online meetings can broaden who is able to participate, but meeting facilitation and group dynamics can still be challenging. Disparities that exist within a group setting are exacerbated in an Online setting
  • Recognizing that simultaneous translation is the best option for ensuring live streamed meetings are accessible to limited-English proficient community members.
    • Videoconferencing technologies such as Zoom allow simultaneous translation across multiple languages.
    • Plan well in advance if providing simultaneous translation services.
    • During the meeting registration process, ensure participants are aware that interpretation options are available and ask them to indicate their needs and language preferences. Collect information on the questions and content they hope to learn about, in order to anticipate and address questions early on.
    • Hire professional interpretation services that have capacity for Video Remote Interpretation (VRI). Meet in advance with interpreters to discuss logistics such as meeting content (including any acronyms), format, agenda, audience/number of participants, and how to operate the software translation services; plan to conduct a few practice sessions to ensure it runs smoothly.
    • Providing simultaneous translation is staff heavy.  There will likely be a need for 3 interpreters (2 for providing interpretation and 1 to respond to written comments or questions in the chat box) and adequate staff that can oversee technical issues and serve as a point of communication between speakers and interpreters throughout the meeting.
    • If showing a short video, try to insert captions whenever possible as the best strategy for translation.
    • Ask panelists to speak clearly and slowly to ensure interpreters can easily understand and translate as thoroughly as possible.  
    • Structure the question and answer period during one designated time slot, rather than taking questions sprinkled throughout the meeting.          
  • Accessible virtual engagement considers users of all ages and abilities. Adults with a disability are less likely to utilize technology than adults without a disability, and this group is predominantly comprised of older adults, making them especially difficult to connect with virtually.[iii]
  • Recognizing some populations will have limited access to technology needed to participate virtually, there are additional methods for inclusive practices.
    • Low-income individuals are less likely to own a smart phone or have access to broadband Internet or a personal computer than high-earning individuals.[v]
    • In some low-income households with smart phone access, this is their main access to Internet.[vi] Consider data usage when developing phone applications and design them to be data lite.
  • Supporting engagement of impacted communities with limited access and management of technology:
    • Engaging community colleges and libraries to support outreach so that those without access to computers or adequate Internet connections can participate.
    • If making computers available in public spaces, ensure there is signage directing people to these spaces and the signage is in multiple languages.
    • Consider engaging with a community partner like “StreetCode Academy” in East Palo Alto or other community based organizations (CBOs) embedded in the community that provide access to their technology after 5pm so community members can share their input.
    • Offering computers and other devices with hot spots to enable participation.

Online Meeting Facilitation & Security

  • Facilitating Virtual Meetings. Online meetings require a higher level of facilitation to make sure everyone stays engaged.
    • Send an agenda prior to the meeting with clear goals, outcomes, and questions for the group.  Please see an example agenda here:

      • Include instructions on how to use the online meeting technology. Here are some tips on items to consider prior to the meeting and instructions to include:
      • Allocate time at the beginning of the meeting to orient people with the use of the technology: include a slide that provides clear instructions on how attendees can engage during the meeting (e.g. video on/off; mute/unmute; raise hands; private and public chat; answering polls or surveys, etc.). Please see the following slides for an example of an overview of Zoom technology and tech etiquette at the top of a webinar or virtual meeting:
      • Include a slide on expectations around the use of technology:
        • Will the meeting be recorded and shared publicly?
        • Will comments/chats be documented and shared publicly?
        • Will attendees be muted and unmuted by the host?
      • Include expectations for participation:
        • During the design of the meeting, identify the level of engagement you want from participants (listeners, interactive) and share expectations prior to the meeting to maximize engagement
      • Establish group agreements to create a welcoming and safe space
    • Allow for introductions or if everyone already knows each other. Here are some tools:
    • Create space for all participants by giving adequate time for responses and encourage participation, but do not force or require people to contribute. Some tips include:
      • Round Robin: After asking a question, people can say the answer in one word aloud, or using a piece of paper to share on the screen, or using the chat
      • Honor the expertise of attendees that come from their lived experiences: enable story telling during the presentation
      • Allow silence: let attendees process information at their pace and allow for silence before moving to the next item
      • Use grounding practices or arts to shift the attention of attendees from section to section.
      • Consider teeing up a couple participants in advance to come prepared to provide a comment; this can help kick-off discussion and generate increased participation.
    • Be conscious of the Gender Communication Gap, which is exacerbated in online meetings. This is the tendency for men to take more (virtual) space by speaking louder and more frequently than women, giving unequal time to contributions.[vii]  The dominance of white and/or male opinions during meetings creates harmful power dynamics not only for women but serves to exclude the participation of people of color, limited-English communities, youth, and other marginalized groups.
    • Additional resources for online meeting facilitation:
  • Online and Teleconference Meeting Security
    • Use technology than can provide call-in numbers or links with access codes.
    • Use the waiting room feature to monitor attendance and ensure the meeting doesn’t start until the host arrives.
    • Ensure the web-forum account does not have limitations to the number of people that can join in order to avoid a cap for meetings that have strong interest from community.
    • Don’t record the meeting or document chats without notice to the attendees or if it’s not necessary.
    • If the meeting isn’t public, don’t share the links via social media.
    • For public meetings, disable features not needed, such as chat or screen and file sharing.
    • If available, use your organizations approved web conference platform or conference call system.
    • If available, use a dashboard to monitor attendees. (see below for a list of free platforms)
    • Additional resources for securing meetings online:

Ensuring Public Noticing for Virtual Meetings

  • (E)Mailings and Flyers
    • Sending a notice for an upcoming survey, webinar, or other meeting is an important, and sometimes legal requirement, for successful participation.
    • Emailing notices can work if you have a robust email list, but this can miss people who lack access to email, Internet, or a computer.
    • Direct mailings can be expensive. An alternative can be flyering areas where you would like to increase responses or participation to an upcoming event. Consider public spaces in the community, as well as schools, churches, recreation centers, and medical offices.
    • Utilize social media tools and texting.
  • Utilize existing networks
    • It is especially important for government meetings to engage with trusted Community Based Organizations (CBO) or community leaders that have authentic relationships with impacted communities. Together government agency and CBOs can create a plan for incorporating virtual practices. Parameters around this will require government to be in true partnership with contracted partner as the expert in the communities where they represent or have relationships.

Key Resources:

Model Practices

Participatory Budgeting is a process where residents vote on how the budget should be allocated. In California and around the U.S., Participatory Budgeting processes have been able to expand participation, and in recent years, the move to an online platform has made the process more accessible. In 2013, San Francisco’s District 7 took their participatory budgeting process online and saw a jump in participation. In their 2015-2016 budgeting year, 97% of ballots cast were done online. The San Francisco process ensures the online voting, and other aspects of the process, is available in multiple languages and they developed strategies for including people who are less likely to vote. Since people who may not be able to vote in general elections (such as youth) are able to vote in this process, places consistently see greater voter turnout. The online aspect does not replace in-person meetings and discussions, but it has the possibility of expanding access and inclusion to shape the allocation of important public resources.  

Participatory Budgeting Project:

Stanford Participatory Budgeting Platform:


[i]  Pew Research Center. The Internet and Civic Engagement, 2009.

[ii] Pew Research Center. Digital Divide Persists Even as Lower-Income Americans Make Gains in Tech Adoption, 2019.

[iii] Pew Research Center. Disabled Americans are less likely to use technology, 2017.

[iv] U.S. Department of Justice. Civil Rights Division, Disability Rights Section. ADA Requirements, Effective Communication, January 2014.

[v] Pew Research Center. Digital divide persists even as lower-income Americans make gains in tech adoption, 2019.

[vi] Pew Research Center. Smartphones help blacks, Hispanics bridge some-but not all-digital gaps with whites, 2019.

[vii] In J. Holmes, M. Meyerhoff, & S. Ehrlich (Eds.), Handbook of Language and Gender, 2nd edition. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, 2013.