Citizen engagement is all the rage today. We have been told that governments at all levels must find effective avenues to engage with the public. The legitimacy and effectiveness of public agencies depends on how well residents are engaged in policy deliberation and design.
Given the advancements of information and communication technologies, today’s online platforms are seen as the new vehicle to connect with residents. It would not be a stretch to claim that almost every major local government has an online citizen engagement platform. What is even more interesting is the rise of online platforms created by residents for peer-to-peer collaboration and co-creation of solutions to tackle local problems.
Entities as far reaching as the White House have extolled the necessity of citizen engagement for strong communities. Such efforts as the Open Government Partnership (http://www.opengovpartnership.org)—an international platform of 64 participating countries that use resident participation to improve government policies—and the Rebuild by Design contest are now used to develop the most innovative designs after Hurricane Katrina. Hosted by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Rebuild by Design (http://www.rebuildbydesign.org) reflects a desire by the White House to include residents in decision-making processes. This heightened desire is driven by the notion that for national and community success, residents should be involved in solving societies’ most pressing challenges.
This concept, however, is not new. The notion that civic participation is the cornerstone of democracy has held true for centuries. One can easily trace its origin to the United States’ founding principles. It would be nearly impossible to keep a representative democracy afloat without adequate citizen engagement.
Recently, especially in the U.S. and for most of Europe, a resurgence of interest in citizen engagement can be attributed to the fact that many governments have extremely low approval ratings, are disconnected with issues that need to be contended with on main street, and have lost the trust of the public.1 2 Through a focused effort to re-engage residents, governments hope to recapture some of the lost trust, engage them in the co-creation of solutions, and foster innovation.
Unfortunately, citizen engagement is not as easy as one might imagine. Despite significant investments on the part of governments, it seldom results in fruitful outcomes.3 Participation is abysmally low and has been for some time. In 2014, the National Research Center conducted a survey on resident activity and found that only 19 percent of Americans contacted their local elected officials over a 12-month period, and about 25 percent attended a public meeting.4
As one city manager remarked to me, “I wish I had never engaged. Engaging made matters worse and only created a coalition that was not going to rest until the program was abandoned.”
Such sentiments as this are not rare. It is difficult for me to find a manager who can point to specific outcomes that they have realized with investment in citizen engagement. Yet, most managers are told to invest more in it and increase the intensity at which they connect with residents.
Given that I am never one to shy away from controversy (or create one), I am going to argue that we need to tone down the hype around citizen engagement. Like most things, it can be good in moderation.
Reasons for Disengagement
Several valid reasons exist for why residents disengage, or never engage, regardless of how much effort local government might make to get their attention.
First, people are busy. Back in 2007, the United Nations noted that a quarter of the world’s population—more than 600 million people—work excessively long hours (48 hours a week or more).5 In the United States, 85.8 percent of males and 66.5 percent of females work more than 40 hours a week.6 In addition to work, they are managing children’s social calendars, familial responsibilities, and personal upkeep. Residents with busy lives often do not view engagement with government as a high priority.
Second, people are preoccupied with things more important than your cause, problem, opportunity, or policy. Consider Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs of Human Motivation that outlines the layers of needs to be met for individuals before they can spend time doing more abstract/long-term rewarding activities.
Maslow asserts that we need such basic fulfillments as shelter, food, and interpersonal connection before we can engage in other activities like citizen engagement. This theory has direct implications concerning which residents are engaged and, consequently, whose voices are heard.
Engagement is largely predicated on the notion that community members’ voices are being heard to create better outcomes. The main demographic characteristics that are strongly associated with engagement are income, education, gender, and personality. Largely, individuals who are highly educated and more affluent tend to participate more.7
There is, however, a large segment of the population who do not regularly participate: the poor and disenfranchised. The bottom 30 percent of American families, for example, earns less than $35,000 a year. These families receive few employer benefits and hold jobs with inconsistent or unpredictable schedules which doesn’t allow for much consistent citizen engagement.8
Generational differences also play a significant role in engagement. Digital natives, for example, are individuals who have grown up with access to information and communication technologies all of their lives. These are people traditionally born in the early to mid-1990s on to the present. This generation has a different view of engagement. For digital natives, the motivation to participate originates from peer relationships and a quest for self-actualization.
This means that this generation is looking to engage to fulfill an intrinsic need; not to fulfill the traditional notion of citizen engagement as a civic duty. The National Research Center survey further suggests that younger residents are not inclined to speak up. In fact, individuals under the age of 35 who have attended public meetings and contact elected officials are far lower than those over 35.
Third, people suffer from attention deficit disorder. Okay, not literally, but there are multiple things clamoring for their attention when it comes to local engagement in the community, and the ever-expanding digital world also consumes an increasing amount of our attention.
Fourth, citizen engagement can be viewed as a chore and not worth the effort when present conditions are unclear or questionable. Local governments sometimes deal with a scandal or residents’ view that governance is failing. News cycles and social media can perpetuate negative perceptions with ongoing news stories or the circulation of rumor and innuendo.
Finally, citizens have seldom seen results and outcomes from the handful of times they have engaged.9 This seems rather bizarre since we live in a world of real-time or near real-time feedback.
This can happen because people seldom see the outcomes of their efforts due to the long time horizons and the democratic process playing out. The lack of visible outcomes does not validate citizens’ efforts; instead, it demeans the time and effort they dedicated to the cause.
Additional Factors to Weigh
Communities are unique places that have their own culture and history, which have both played a role in their citizen engagement or disengagement. Either way, engagement or disengagement came about due to certain conditions, which should be evaluated when weighing future action.
Participation may not be representative of the larger population. Mark Funkhouser, former mayor of Kansas City, notes that at most public meetings, the usual suspects show up—the self-appointed activist, the lobbyist, and regular folks who have gotten angry enough or scared enough to join the dialogue.
Today, online platforms like websites, social media, and apps are often used for citizen engagement. These platforms offer local governments the ability to efficiently engage with citizens and allow for more accessibility. Online civic engagement platforms, however, are no panacea. A lot of hype surrounds the use of these networks; however, we must remember that not everyone uses these platforms,
The Pew Research Internet Project, for example, found that in the U.S., adults of higher incomes use Internet and smartphone technologies to near saturation levels.10 Almost by default, these tools might target a particular segment of the population.
Also, through online platforms, especially with social networks that include Facebook and Twitter among others, information or sentiments can be easily manipulated to create the illusion of widespread support or disagreement. In 2012, someone tweeted that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was dead and it was then rebroadcast by a journalist. Within an hour, the news of Assad’s supposed death caused oil prices to climb a dollar.11
Another factor that comes into play is that citizens often have a limited view of a problem. They are often not in tune with the realities of the local government, including budgetary and technological constraints, political issues, and planning agendas. They also don’t always consider the greater good, just their long-term needs. This makes their solutions to problems ineffectual.
Citizen engagement is also expensive and time consuming. Local governments are resource strapped and do not have unlimited resources to divert to this focus. As a result, any resources invested in engagement means that resources are being diverted from other critical issues.
An app called Aloha, for example, was developed in Kenya for residents to submit local problems with which they needed help. After a year, there were 400 to 500 points of data on the app; however, only two have been responded to due to staffing issues.12
Citizen engagement, like most things, is not free and incurs opportunity costs. Citizen engagement is currently, in my opinion, overdone and not carefully considered.
When citizen engagement isn’t done well, community perception can suffer and invite negative scrutiny.
Consider a seemingly small and fun citizen engagement activity by the New York Police Department (NYPD). In 2014, the NYPD tweeted to the residents of New York to post pictures of themselves with NYPD officers using the hashtag #myNYPD. They overwhelming did just that and posted largely negative pictures and comments that focused on the NYPD’s alleged penchant for misconduct and resident brutality (see picture posted at: http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2014/04/23/nypd-twitter-mynypd-new-york/8042209).
Given that citizen participation is a cornerstone of a democratic society, here are five suggestions to ensure your local government’s effort to engage residents are well-thought out and encourage meaningful collaboration.
Don’t cry wolf. Do not conduct citizen engagement casually. Don’t ask for feedback you don’t need or won’t use. If you keep screaming for engagement, eventually it will be part of the noise and get lost and lose its credibility. Choose carefully when and where you want to engage and toward what end.
Be thoughtful. Approach engagement like you would anything else: thoughtfully and carefully. There is a level of unpredictability that is innate in citizen engagement so local governments must consider all possibilities. Research by Professor and author John Alford (see http://mbs.edu/facultyresearch/facultydirectory/Pages/JohnAlford.aspx) as one example, argues that residents should be engaged in simple tasks as it will heighten the level of assistance citizens can offer.13 Information like this should be used in your engagement strategy to create the best possible outcomes.
Provide residents with clear incentives to engage. The success of crowdfunding platforms has taught us that individuals will engage and collaborate toward solving challenges and innovation if there is incentive alignment. Incentives to contribute should be tailored to attract the most effective collaborators and achieve alignment of motive among collaborators.
Get creative about ways to incentivize like the New York City Big Apps Challenge. To encourage development of tech business, this challenge opted to let participants retain the intellectual property rights of the apps they created.
Provide feedback to participants. One of the most common complaints that people have from spending time engaging is that their feedback goes into a black hole, never to be heard of again. Engaged participation needs to be validated, not placated. If you ask citizens for feedback on something, honor that feedback by showing that it was considered and if it couldn’t be used, why.
It is important to dialogue with the community instead of only gathering information. This allows participants to have a realistic view of what can and cannot happen in their community. A simple and polite, “Here is our budget. How do you suggest we fund that?” can go a long way.
Set realistic expectations. Think of what would be considered a good citizen engagement program. Take lessons from the past and lessons from others to conceptualize what engagement should look like for your community. This includes setting expectations and measures and getting feedback, and taking this gathered intelligence into account as you consider future engagement. Citizen engagement shouldn’t be approached haphazardly just because it seems like the right thing to do.
Today, local governments are asking residents to engage in everything from participatory budgeting to voting for the best colors for city benches. The strong temptation to engage them more because it’s popular can be detrimental to a local government. While I would never go as far as to say stop seeking resident engagement, I would implore that you find the right balance of engagement.
This article was produced by the enhanced research partnership of ICMA, Arizona State University, and the Alliance for Innovation. This partnership has worked to develop engagement resources and services that focus on the unique ways in which any given jurisdiction can use engagement to achieve its goals and avoid pitfalls that can derail effective engagement.
For more information, visit the ICMA Center for Management Strategies websites listed here, where you will find a variety of resources, free organizational assessment tools, and vetted leading practitioners who can assist in your efforts to do engagement “right.”
ENDNOTES AND RESOURCES
7 Homero Gil de Zúñiga and Sebastián Valenzuela. The Mediating Path to a Stronger Citizenship: Online and Offline Networks, Weak Ties, and Civic Engagement. Communication Research. 2011;38:397–421.
13 Alford, John. 2009. “Engaging public sector clients: From service delivery to co-production.” London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Kevin Desouza is associate dean for research, College of Public Programs; professor, School of Public Affairs; and interim director, Decision Theater, Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development, Arizona State University, Phoenix, Arizona (firstname.lastname@example.org; web at http://www.kevindesouza.net).