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A theme I’ve been returning to on a regular basis in the talks I’ve been giving lately has been about the need for government to make participation easier.

I’ve blogged in my usual half-assed manner about the participation deficit before, and it strikes me that this is an important issue that is both not going away and also is probably going to get worse.

I tend to highlight myself as an example of the problem here, in that despite being one of the very few people in the world who actually find government interesting, I never actually engage myself. I’ve not been to a council meeting, responded to a survey or questionnaire, and never given feedback through another route.

Why is this? It’s not that I’m lazy (keep quiet at the back), nor that I don’t care. It’s mainly that the instruments of local democracy just don’t fit in with my lifestyle.

The most obvious culprit here is the meeting. It strikes me that the dominance of meetings pretty much means that anyone with a family and a job (or perhaps even just one of those) is excluded from the process.

Read the boy a story before bed time, or go to the town hall to talk about a planning application? Not a difficult choice, but the answer means that participation is always going to be low.

Perhaps there’s an opportunity here to learn from the micro-volunteering that is becoming increasingly popular. An easy, quick way to get involved in civic activity that fits into people’s lives the way they are lived now, not fifty years ago.

After all, I may not be able to give up two (or more!) hours of an evening to attend a council meeting, but I’m sat in front of a computer almost all day, and could easily take 15 minutes or longer out to get involved, perhaps by answering some questions, providing ideas, or identifying problems.

Even better, with a smartphone and a bit of geo-tagging, why not tell me how I can contribute from exactly where I am?

Getting involved and participating shouldn’t be a chore. As I mentioned in my post about councillors, we need more people doing less, rather than the situation we have now where only a few people do far too much.

I don’t think this needs massive upheaval, or some kind of revolution in local democracy (although that might be nice). A bit of tinkering around the edges would, I’m sure, go a long way.

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Comment by Dave Briggs on April 23, 2011 at 6:34am
I've fleshed out a bit more - will be adding more examples as I go along. If anyone else wants to join in (please do!) you can submit examples and ideas using the dedicated forms.
Comment by Andrew Krzmarzick on April 22, 2011 at 5:14pm
I've posted a related conversation over here:
Comment by Tim Bonnemann on April 21, 2011 at 11:38am

Finally found the time to add a few thoughts to the mix: Micro-Participation In Online Consultations

Comment by Jennifer Cowley on April 20, 2011 at 7:51am

I'm not sure I'd agree that 911 is a form of micro-participation. That would be a bit of a stretch, but I think the 311 system would be much more akin to this.  311 is for reporting non-emergency problems. Many government agencies have been moving to mobile apps that allow people to take geocoded pictures and type in reports via their smartphone and submit them into the 311 system. (


Comment by Dave Briggs on April 20, 2011 at 4:17am

A thought that came up when I was presenting on micro-participation yesterday...

Could we view emergency reporting via 999 (in the UK) or 911 (in the States, I guess it works the same) as a form of micro-participation? Indeed, one that works pretty well?

Comment by Dave Briggs on April 18, 2011 at 6:58pm

It's a small start, but I'm putting together a project site at

I'm looking to collect existing examples and maybe get some new initiatives up and running. Most of all to spread the word about micro-participation!

There's not a lot there at the moment, but I'll start fleshing the site out soon.

Comment by Daniel Honker on April 18, 2011 at 2:10pm
Great point, Lucas. I think assumptions are sometimes made in the opengov community that public participation must mean tapping "the wisdom of crowds" -- that masses of people doing small activities can yield big results. And this is right in a lot of situations. And it's understandable that a lot of this comes from the technologically inclined among us -- after all, tools that aggregate tons of data from a mass of people are often times pretty cool and innovative. But we shouldn't forget that the barriers have also been lowered to more intensive, deeper participation, which can help gov in many ways that the mass collaboration cannot.
Comment by Lucas Cioffi on April 18, 2011 at 1:21pm

I agree with the central premise that participation should be convenient/accessible for reasons of fairness and that doing so is consistent with the values of a democratic society.  I'd like to add that making public participation simple should not always be the goal.  This is a response to some of the comments which are leaning in this direction.

A few folks have already pointed out in the discussion that some forms of participation are simpler than others, such as reporting a pothole, responding to a survey, or sending in a Tweet.  Many problems can benefit tremendously from simple public participation but not all problems.  

To set the stage, I'll point to the White House's effort to crowdsource the answer to the question of "What are the grand challenges our nation should address?" The White House collected these original responses via Facebook and Twitter (and they also allowed for email submissions which were not made public).  Now this is somewhat of an extreme case, because it's asking the public to identify the biggest possible problems they could imagine and to squeeze these ideas through micro-participation channels.

Obviously no one expects any of the Facebook/Twitter messages to solve any of the grand challenges in and of themselves, but many of these microblog responses linked to ongoing efforts to find solutions.  So there was value to the exercise, but I'd like to see the next generation of micro-participation go farther rather than stopping there.

I'll posit that many of the participants have some ideas that can be directly useful in addressing some of those grand challenges.  I'll also posit that there would be tremendous value in allowing those participants to connect with each other and build on each other's ideas.  The White House's survey effort through Twitter and Facebook was largely two-way and was not conducive to many-to-many collaboration.

So yes, all participation should be convenient/accessible (the proposed definition of micro-participation in this article), but not all participation should be simple.  Some public problems require deeper collaboration where ideas can build on each other.  This combination of two ideas can be much more valuable than the value of the ideas taken separately.

See the video below about good ideas arising from the combination of other ideas.  When we as the opengov community consider creating simple two-way participation channels between government and individuals, we should also make space in those channels for collaboration among participants.  And then we should expect to be surprised :)



Comment by Wayne Moses Burke on April 18, 2011 at 10:35am


Huge congratulations for getting approval for the Geneva Records Project and getting it off the ground. It's incredibly exciting!

I would say that the biggest challenge you now face is getting people to participate. While I will not pretend to be an expert in making that happen (maybe Andy can share some of his community-building expertise!), I'm happy to share some thoughts I've been having recently. Namely that the very notion of community-building is somewhat misleading in and of itself as it implies that you can develop a community out of nothing. This may be true in certain circumstances, but for most scenarios I think it's more practical to think of it engaging and getting buy-in from pre-existing communities.

For your situation, who stands to benefit from (or who cares about) the city having online property records? Find those communities and individuals and you can find people who will be willing to put in the effort that you are asking them for.

I hope that's helpful - do keep us informed of how the project goes!

Comment by Tim Bonnemann on April 17, 2011 at 5:29pm



Here are a few of my posts that deal specifically with the term public participation:

Thanks for kicking off a great discussion, by the way.  ;-)

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