The virtual pivot: how to do public involvement in the time of COVID

Beautiful parks, scenic trails, and safe, drivable, congestion-free roads are all part of what makes a community great.

But these kinds of infrastructure projects don’t just appear overnight. They’re often the result of months or even years of public involvement and community outreach—one of the main hats I wear at Blue Daring.  

Public involvement—going out into the community to let residents, businesses, organizations and other stakeholders know about local projects and developments—is critical to the success of any infrastructure project. After all, who better to provide insights into the needs of the community than the people who actually live and work there? 

But when COVID-19 social distancing requirements went into effect, engaging the public in person was no longer an option.

Our challenge became: How do we meaningfully connect with the community—and ensure everyone has an equitable opportunity to make their voice heard—without being in the same room?

Preparing to pivot

Our team has a whole toolkit of strategies that allow us to effectively engage the public—everything from interactive websites to eblasts to easy-to-consume brochures and newsletters to assets for community partners. But our mightiest tool of all is the public meeting, where we get to sit down with community members and discuss their ideas and concerns one-on-one.

As the pandemic flared up, Zoom and other web-based conference platforms became the world’s new meeting place. Our team wondered, could a virtual environment work for public involvement, too?

While we may have been eager to say yes, it wasn’t as easy as sending out a calendar invite with a meeting link. 

Chicago is home to many diverse communities that range widely in age, language, and socioeconomic status. Some residents don’t have a personal computer or internet access. Some are seniors and can’t easily view things on-screen. And no matter how much detailed information you put online, when it comes to complex infrastructure projects that can potentially impact homes and livelihoods, there are always going to be questions, and people are always going to want to speak with someone.

So how did we make virtual public engagement a success?

Meeting people where they are

We found that a holistic approach combining a robust virtual presence with more traditional grassroots efforts seemed to work best. For example, we strategically designed online meeting materials in a variety of formats to be accessible and interactive. We also mailed print brochures directly to community members and designed comment forms to include flexible options for email and phone responses.

Most importantly, we didn’t neglect tried-and-true strategies such as connecting with local elected officials and community organizations to spread awareness, or picking up the phone to call a community member. Because no resident should ever feel left out or unable to provide input into what is happening in their community.


Beyond the pandemic

Virtual outreach has allowed us to be more flexible and reach community residents where they are…in the comfort of their homes. I’ve noticed the same, if not higher, levels of participation and comments provided through our virtual strategies. And with all the great web tools and analytics available, we can now track metrics and have concrete measures of success.

While I hope one day soon we’ll be able to physically connect and meet with stakeholders in person, I don’t think virtual outreach is going anywhere. It will simply become another handy tool in the public involvement toolkit.  

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