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:
Highly Engaged City
The main difference between the two, is that highly engaged cities have a wider variety of tools available, utilize more data and have slightly stronger communication channels. However, as becomes evident in the maturity diagrams, even highly engaged cities lack a strong mobile strategy, fail to capitalize on additional data sources and have an immature communication channel. So, why should we care about this and how do we fix it?
Why should we care?
As we strive to build Smart Cities, the need for strong citizen engagement has never been more crucial. Can a City really be described as ‘Smart’ if it makes changes without consulting with a diverse sample of the citizens affected by these changes before, during, and after projects are implemented? Will citizens adopt Smart Initiatives if they aren’t part of the decision-making process? Recent case studies suggest not.
We care because ultimately Smart Cities should be built from the ground up. They are designed to be Smart in order to benefit the citizens, visitors and stakeholders they serve. From my experience, there are two types of Smart Cities: (1) those that take a Smart solution and strive to find problems, and (2) those that find a problem and strive to find a Smart solution. As citizens we hope our cities take the latter approach. However, without Citizen First Engagement a city risks becoming the former. If you choose to make changes without consulting the people they impact, then you do so at your own peril.
How do we fix it? By moving to a citizen-first engagement approach.
There are many problems that cities face with engagement, but perhaps the most talked about is how to address the gaping hole of youth engagement (roughly ages 18-35). So let’s start there. This is a generation that thinks, operates, and engages differently to the traditional methods that cities force upon them. With that in mind, here are my recommendations for transforming citizen engagement in a way that appeals to this demographic and strengthens a city’s overall engagement strategy:
1. Utilize mobile.
Step one - build a mobile engagement strategy. You have to take engagement to the citizens, rather than expecting them to come to you. There are two primary mobile approaches to consider – (1) responsive web content and surveys, which are great for broad reaching one-off consultations; and (2) mobile apps which are well suited to ongoing engagement and enable additional data (such as location) to be utilized, provide push notification capability and build an engaged user base over time. A comprehensive mobile strategy should include both, depending on the consultation.
2. Remove the burden for citizens.
Evaluate how you design surveys. Relying heavily on multiple choice and asking questions that require long freeform text responses isn’t cool. Consider asking questions using yes/no swipe functionality or a sliding scale. In my opinion, a well-designed survey can be completed using one hand whilst walking down the street. If your surveys require a desk, laptop, and dedicated concentration time, the 18-35 age group just isn’t going to be impressed. And if they’re not impressed, they’re not engaged.
3. Consider offering rewards.
Who says engagement can’t be fun? Simple gamification or the chance to win rewards can be a great incentive. Depending on the topic, rewards may not be needed, but in some cases, rewards can draw in users that historically haven’t been motivated to engage. Whether it’s the chance to instantly win a free pool pass, coffee, or a $30 voucher, rewarding citizens for their participation can go a long way.
4. Go beyond survey responses.
Survey responses provide part of the picture. In recent months we’ve worked with cities to offer citizens the chance to op-in and share additional anonymized data to enrich their feedback. This works particularly well when rewards are offered in return. By combining survey responses with anonymized sensor data such as location, you have far more context than ever before. Questions can be directed to citizens based on areas they’ve visited, responses can be filtered to show feedback from citizens who have visited specific areas, and the additional data can be utilized by other departments (i.e. city planners and research teams).
In summary, citizen engagement is constantly changing and adapting. Whether it’s the medium used, the way that questions are asked, or the incorporation of additional data sources, one thing is clear - traditional engagement methods are not sufficient in this day and age. They do not capture a broad demographic and, above all, are just plain boring. It’s time for cities to reevaluate the techniques and methods they’re using for citizen engagement and adopt innovative technologies to accommodate a new generation that doesn’t accept outdated approaches. Isn’t it time that we made citizen engagement a little more… well… engaging?
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