Pros and Cons of Community Engagement Platforms: Self-built vs. Open-Source vs. SaaS

July 27, 2022
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Smart City

When your local government, consultancy, or project requires a community engagement platform, there are three main paths to go: a self-made platform, open-source, and commercial SaaS (software-as-a-service) solution.

All of these are valid options, so how should you make a choice? To guide you through the process, here is a list of the pros and cons of these community engagement platforms.                     

infographics for defining requirements for a community engagement platforms
Use this checklist to review your needs and criteria for selecting a citizen engagement platform.                                

Option 1: Building Community Engagement Software Yourself

The first choice you’re facing is whether to buy an existing solution (commercial or open-source) or build a platform from the ground up. It can seem that owning your platform and coding every bit of it gives you more flexibility, but it’s quite illusory.

Let’s consider what are the caveats of building an in-house platform from the ground up.

It takes an enormous amount of time and resources to code and implement a functional community engagement platform. 

You’d need an in-house tech team who’ll be able to react when the server is down or any other problem occurs. 

Participation specialists will need to be involved in the application design process. They need to ensure that all the recent state-of-the-art engagement techniques are integrated into the platform. 

You need resources for internal training and support. Once your platform is created, your team needs to master running public participation projects with it. For that, you need to create a special training program and allocate a support team. That stretches your budget even more.

You’ll miss out on the best practices. When using a SaaS or open-source solution, you become part of an active community of public engagement and GIS professionals. Together, they shape the platform and ensure that it incorporates all the best practices of community engagement software, such as participatory budgeting. Building your custom software locks you in a box, and it will require much more effort to keep the platform up-to-date.

Overall, even if you manage to secure enormous resources for building a community engagement platform in-house, you can better spend this budget elsewhere.

Option 2: Using Open-Source Software for Community Engagement: Pros and Cons 

If building your own software is a tricky project, what about getting a free open-source solution (also known as FOSS)? The biggest advantage of open-source is that the code is transparent — it’s openly shared on the web. What’s more, it’s free to grab and deploy. And it’s not set in stone, so you’ll be able to make any changes based on your needs.

But the clear-cut pros of open-source community engagement platforms end here. 

As the source code is open, anyone can use it — and misuse it, with malicious intent. Since you’re handling citizens’ personal data, having this data leaked would be an unfortunate scenario. A closed commercial software (which also will be liable in case of misuse) will be a safer choice.

In case something goes wrong, it will be up to you to figure it out. Can’t log in with your institutional credentials? The base map is not rendered properly? Users can’t save their survey responses? Open-source software doesn’t come with support or consultation services. Of course, you can seek help from other open software users, but none of them will be liable to offer support.

No strategic support. You might figure out a specific feature of given open-source software, but digging into the best practices for using it might be difficult. For example, you’re in doubt whether you’re using the best way to structure your survey. Dedicated support teams are also happy to consult you on more strategic questions.

Your team won’t get any training on how to use the platform. Using community engagement platforms is no rocket science. But proper onboarding and support documentation will help your team master the service and adjust it to your use case. Unfortunately, open source solutions won’t offer that either. But you can dip into the community knowledge and find real gems there.

Want your community engagement platform to reflect your city branding? DIY (or code it yourself, to be more precise). At the same time, some SaaS engagement platforms offer easy-to-use branding and customization tools.

In the end, although the upfront cost is (almost) zero, the effort and costs of maintaining this open-source software can run quite high.

Don’t get us wrong. Open-source software is great. It works especially well for low-funded communities that want basic participation tools for engaging stakeholders. 

But if your local government or project requires more functionalities and security from a community engagement platform, it’s only up to your IT resources to make it work. Not to talk about extra work with handling training and support within your organization. 

Option 3: Proprietary Community Engagement Platforms as SaaS

With the software-as-a-service (SaaS) model, you use the licensed service via the web without managing its software and hardware. It’s an increasingly popular model of getting web-based services, also for community engagement platforms. 

As the community engagement industry is growing, the market is full of public engagement software of any kind. It can be a huge govtech giant or a local startup, some platforms are made by academics and public participation practitioners, while others spin from huge CRM (customer relationship management) platforms.

Pros and Cons of SaaS for Community Engagement 


  • Subscription costs
  • Selecting a trustworthy player that fits your needs is difficult and time-consuming
  • Code is not transparent 


  • State-of-the-art public engagement functionalities 
  • Reliability
  • Support and training 
  • Help in deployment and onboarding
  • No software or hardware development needed

Subscription-based or project-based community engagement software

SaaS platforms are usually billed on a yearly subscription basis, and here you might face one more dilemma. Wouldn’t it be better to pay on a project-by-project basis? It might be viable to test a certain platform on one project before committing long-term. 

But if you’re running ongoing city-wide engagement programs, a subscription-based model will be cheaper in the end. You’ll get a better ROI, more flexibility, and better team management as you’ll be able to introduce the solution to all the departments needed. That’s why the City of Vantaa in Finland, for example, digitized all of its community engagement processes with one subscription-based solution.

Must-haves of a community engagement platform

First of all, look at the list of requirements and features for your local government (this post helps you draft a list of requirements when choosing a citizen engagement platform). This will be your North Star. 

As mentioned before, the list of requirements will be your north star in choosing a platform. Here are more things you need to keep track of, especially when opting for a SaaS community engagement platform.

  • Data hosting location. If you’re in the EU, your data must be hosted within the EU.
  • Languages and translations. Inquire in what languages the platform operates and in which languages you can publish the surveys. Maptionnaire, for example, lets you translate questionnaires and supports more than 30 languages, which helps you to cater to the needs of multilingual communities.
  • Accessibility. As your mission is to reach out to everyone, including those whose voices are often not heard, you need to accommodate a variety of needs. Make sure that the platform adheres to web accessibility standards, for example, to Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG2.1). Maptionnaire makes its platform accessible by properly coding all questionnaire elements and using accessible color pallets, among other things. Then screen readers and other assistive technology can help respondents in filling out questionnaires.
  • Security and Privacy (GDPR compliance for the EU). It is important to find a provider that is GDPR compliant and adheres to the highest standards of information security management.
  • Support levels. Find out existing support options in advance — these can be chat, community groups, support email, consulting services, and so on.
  • Time to launch. How long will it take for you to start working on the platform after the purchase?
  • End user verification. You might want to ensure that no bots participate in community engagement projects. For this, you might need to verify your users with email or social media accounts — some platforms support these features.
  • Import of own maps. If collecting geolocated data is a key for your projects, you need certain flexibility in importing your own municipal maps.
  • Company’s experience and user base. Does the service have experience with city or municipal clients (or any other organization similar to yours)? Although the number of tech companies grows exponentially, sadly not all of them are meant to last. And chances are that if a company has been around for a while, it’s mature enough to provide long-lasting services to its clients. Are they dedicated to developing the service further? Are there community engagement experts in the team? These are all relevant points to look into or ask when talking to sales teams.
  • Use cases from your region. It’s wise to ask if a community engagement platform has been used on a city-wide or a project-based level in your region. If yes, most probably this software passes general security and privacy standards.

Nice-to-haves features for citizen engagement software

Here are some great features that local governments look for in a community engagement platform — use it as an inspiration. Since almost every use case is unique, you’d probably not find one solution that ticks all the boxes on your wishlist, so prioritize wisely.

  • Team management 
  • Transparency in proposal management 
  • Reporting (for public hearing process and internal accountability)
  • Data export and visualization
  • Analysis and monitoring tools
  • Design customization
  • Embedding
  • Engagement options 

You can also suggest new features to the service providers (trust us, some of the best Maptionnaire features were developed in conversation with our customers).

By choosing a reliable and researched-backed community engagement platform that’s run by a team of experts, you’ll make sure that your solution is efficient and complies with the state-of-art public participation practices. 

If you’re interested in learning more about Maptionnaire, explore our platform’s featrues or contact our team!

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