4 Strategies to Fix Citizen Engagement
Over the past six weeks I’ve had the pleasure of meeting with over twenty cities across the United States and Australia. Whether I was speaking with a small rural council or a large metropolitan city, the challenge of citizen engagement came up in almost every conversation; specifically, the ever-increasing gap between current engagement strategies and large pockets of the community.
Consider for a moment your own situation and the relationship you have with your local government. Do you engage regularly? Do you feel included in the decision-making process? Do you know how to engage? Is the process simple? Do you feel like your voice is heard? While many of us may answer ‘no’ to the majority of these questions, we learned that your answers will depend greatly on several factors including your age, gender and education (amongst others).
Our conversations enabled us to quickly identify the most common ways that cities engage with their citizens today. These include postal surveys, phone surveys, online surveys and face-to-face community consultations. Considering the methods used, it came as no surprise that every city struggled to engage with people between the ages of 18 to 35. In some cases, the statistics were staggering – it wasn’t uncommon to find areas where more than 50% of the population were aged between 18-35, yet 90% of feedback came from people aged 35+.
When we looked more thoroughly into traditional approaches, we found even larger causes for concern. These included:
- Citizen engagement is typically ‘one-time-only’. The channels used to capture feedback mean there’s no way to circle back and ask additional questions, or even provide citizens with updates on how their feedback is being used. Each consultation requires a new (and often costly) campaign to encourage citizens to take a survey.
- Engagement is not considered ‘citizen-first’. The term ‘citizen-first engagement’ is something I coined after reviewing traditional engagement methods which are largely designed to make life easier for city consultation teams. I frequently see questions such as ‘list all the strengths and weaknesses of living in…’ etc. This style of question places a massive burden on the citizen, making engagement a miserable experience that, worst of all, usually requires the citizen writing a lot of text – which in turn results in disengagement.
- Cities offer little or no incentive for participation. There’s little given back to the community in a meaningful or incentivized way – be that published reports, updates showing how feedback is driving change, or rewards for taking part. Yet we live in a world where we compete for time and attention! If you’re not willing to offer a clear incentive, then you shouldn’t be surprised by low participation rates.
- Responses have no context. No additional data is being captured alongside survey responses. Many cities are unsure about the demographics of the people giving responses, rendering them unable to answer questions such as: ‘which areas are the most engaged?’, ’how do responses differ between suburbs or demographics?’ and ‘have the citizens that are giving the feedback been to the areas being asked about?’.
Based on our conversations, we decided to classify cities into different levels of engagement maturity. We judged cities on four key areas – the extent of their traditional engagement methods, communication, mobile strategy, and data utilization. The larger the area covered by the blue overlay, the more comprehensive the city’s engagement strategy[...]