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Use a community reference group to engage your community

If you are engaging your community online regularly and you want increase your engagement numbers, it might be a good idea to setup a community reference group to help you reach even more voices in your community.

While there has been some past discussions around the pit-falls of establishing closed community panels, including the lack of representation, perceived exclusiveness and potential bias, there are some reasonable steps that you can take to leverage off your existing practices to help you setup a rigorous community reference group process.

In this article we look at the thinking behind establishing a reference group, tips for establishing and selecting a reference group as well as strategies for including these groups in your consultations using EngagementHQ.

Why should I establish a community reference group?

In any community engagement activity, it’s fair to say that the best project insights come from those projects which are informed by a diverse range of views and opinions and from a broad cross-section of the community.

The issue with this thinking however, is it’s not always a reality for a broad cross-section of your community to get involved with all of your projects.

Community members have a tendency to be drawn to the issues which appeal to them, or those that immediately impact their lives and often they shy away from issues deemed less important or interesting.

To combat this, many organisations utilise a community panel or reference group strategy to help drive engagement in their projects.

The idea behind establishing a community panel or reference group, is to try and ensure a representative selection of your community take part in your projects as frequently as possible.

By setting up this group, it is also thought to be quicker and easier get feedback on projects over time, taking less resources to drive traffic and interest in your consultations.

These groups can be setup for specific single projects such as community visioning projects, long-term infrastructure planning and capital works consultations, but they are also regularly harnessed as resource for repeat consultation on different topics.

The best thing to do if you are considering setting up a community reference group is to first think about what the groups role will be in your consultation process, what their commitment looks like and ways that you can ensure relevant representation.

You must also consider how consulting with this group of people will fit in with your existing consultation strategy so that you avoid establishing a closed community panel and potentially shut off other views and opinions.

How do I establish a community panel or reference group?

Establish objectives and ground rules for your panel.

In order to setup a community panel or reference group, you first need to outline what it is you actually want to achieve from establishing the group.

You should start by writing down the objective for your community panel as well as the ground rules for their participation.

These ground rules might cover the frequency and duration of their involvement, the types of projects you expect them engage with, the types of feedback you will be asking for (ie. a survey, ideation or even deliberation in forums) and any other preconditions for participation.

Once you have established your objectives for the group and outlined how you envisage their involvement will contribute to your overall engagement strategy, you can then begin a process of determining who will be on your community panel or reference group.

Establish who will be apart of your reference group

Deciding whether your panel needs to be a representative sample of your community can be tricky and it’s not always clear on how to determine the strata for selecting participation. (See our article Do I need a representative sample for my consultation? for more information on establishing a representative group.)

If you are going to establish a community panel or reference group we highly recommend doing the work to identify exactly what a representative sample of your community looks like.

This can be done by stratifying your community using demographics such as age, gender and location and then actively recruiting people in each strata.

For example, if you wanted to establish a community panel of 500 people and your were going to stratify your community based on age and suburb, you would need to work out how many people of different ages in each suburb needed to be a part of your panel in order to make is representative.

Once you have determined how many people you need to recruit in each strata the next step is to recruit your panel.

Recruit your panel

Recruiting your community can be done in a variety of ways utilising your EngagementHQ portal.

The simplest way to recruit your community panel is to put a question on your EngagementHQ registration form.

By doing this, you are then able to run a campaign inviting people to register for your site and indicate their interest in being a part of your panel by choosing an appropriate response.

Simply direct people to the /register page of your site. For example, you might send them to

By doing this you also have the double benefit of capturing new registrations for your online engagement portal.

By putting this type of question into your registration process, you will then be able to use your Participant Relationship Management (PRM) to easily filter through your database for people who’ve indicated their interest to your panel.

You can also use this filter in combination with your demographic questions to start to locate your different groups of people to include in your community panel or reference group.

If you have an existing database and you’d like to extend an invitation to them to indicate their interest in your panel, simply communicate to them about the opportunity and direct them to their EngagementHQ profile page where they can update their profile information.

To do this you simply need to direct your participants to the /profile/edit page of your site. For example you would send them to

By utilising your EngagementHQ participant database as the main method of capturing information about interest in your panel and combining this with other essential registration questions, you place yourself in a better position to quickly and easily recruit your community panel while also maintaining and growing your database.

What should I get my community panel or reference group to do?

There are many things that you are able to get your community panel or community reference group to do that can extend and expand your community consultation activities. Below are three common uses for how you might utilise your community panel.

Regular surveying

Utilising your community panel for regular survey on a range of different topics is a fairly common approach.

If you are going to use your community panel in this way, ensure they are not the only people allowed to provide you feedback on your projects and that the public is also able to get involved.

It’s also a good idea to monitor your groups activity and behaviour to ensure they are participating according to your ground rules.

By utilising your community panel or reference group in this way, it’s also essential that you set a time frame for their involvement so you can regularly incorporate new people into your panel.

A good time period might be 6-12 months, but no longer than 12 months should pass without changing over your panel members.

It is also a good idea to set a grace period for repeat membership of the panel to ensure you get new faces for each period.

Major projects

Utilising a reference group for major projects is another useful way to introduce a representative group of your community to a problem or challenge.

Often community panels or community reference groups in this setting are made up of special interest groups to advice and discuss on behalf of a group of stakeholders.

These panels are good for a short period of time and generally last only for the duration of a single consultation.

If you are going to utilise a community panel for a major project, it is essential that you do the work upfront to determine representation and also include other members of the public in the process at various stages.

Make sure that all of the activities which occur with your community panel are transparent and that you report back regularly.

Deliberative decision making

This is another area where we are continuing to see the utilisation of community panels or reference groups.

Often setup as “juries” these groups are involved in deliberative processes of learning, discussing and making recommendations or decisions on special interest topics which are often extremely complex.

These might be projects such as setting water pricing for a utility company, developing long term transport strategies, determining city visions and long term strategic plans or even wicked problems such as developing policy on genetic engineering or climate change.

Panels in these settings are required to be very involved in the consultation process as their contributions can often effect an outcome with real impact.

These process and experiences take a lot of design and facilitation from experts and it’s essential that impartial facilitation takes place to ensure rigour in the process.

Each participant in a deliberative panel need to make a commitment to be a part of your process and open to leaning about the issues you are hoping to get their input on.


Using community panels can help you expand the range of voices in your online and offline consultations only if you have properly considered their responsibilities as part of your engagement strategy.

Doing proper planning is essential to ensuring that you don’t fall into the pitt-falls of closed community panels and ensuring you actively manage your members with regular changes to your panels makeup is going to be an important part of avoiding bias and skepticism.

If you would like to learn more about how one approach to a community panel has helped drive engagement check out our article How to grow your online community panel using the Willoughby Method.