Citizens’ Maslow Hierarchy of Needs

**Update – I added the presentation based on this blog post at the bottom of this blog (also on slideshare here)**

I’ve recently had a number of conversations with folks government on what citizens truly want.

Transactions/FAQ – There’s one camp that argues to focus on the break and butter – For example, the relaunched which has a strong emphasis on fixing top frequently asked questions and optimizing 100,000+ transactions. Another example would be Honolulu Answers

Deep Engagement – There’s another camp that really wants to focus on citizen engagement and action. How do we get citizens to share ideas and take collective action? Think companies like MindMixer that host great online townhalls like Folsom 2035 where they ask “What is your vision of this community over the next 20 years?”. Or crowdsource funding for agnecy problems (great startups like Citizinvestor)

There’s no right or wrong answer but I think Maslow’s hierarch of needs is a great way to view the citizen demand curve. You must meet the basic needs before moving up the hierarchy of needs chain.

Fundamental needs like applying for benefits or emergency alerts, are inherently more popular than deeper

engagement as I’ve seen from looking at three interesting data points:

-Top Website Topics – Looked at lots of different .gov sites but most have a “top tasks” like to the right

-Top Email Topics – Interesting 2011 infograph from GovDelivery on top topics
Top 10 Open Data categories from Socrata

So let me get into Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and how they relate to citizen’s hierarchy of needs.
1) Physiology = Basic Transactions – The foundation of Maslow’s hierarchy is physiological – breathing, food, water. For government, that’s the basic transactions – getting your driver’s license, renewing your passport, applying for food stamps.

2) Safety = Emergencies/Jobs – One step above is safety – security of body, employment. Think of this as emergency alerts like text/emails with snow/hurricane information. Also it’s finding employment – being able to find and apply for government jobs.

3) Love/belonging = General Agency Content/News – Is a sense of community. To me this is getting news about your community, getting the parks information for example or the latest on a new school opening. Or NASA sharing it’s trip to the moon with you via great images, conversations, and more.

4) Esteem = Sharing Ideas – Esteem to me is the process of sharing ideas. One builds self-esteem, confidence, and achievement by the ability to share one’s voice with others – an in-person or online townhall, ability to give feedback on a program, etc

5) Self-actualization – Citizen Problem Solving – Is the highest level of Maslow’s need and involves creativity and problem solving. I think of this as building on open data or organizing a citizen watch group.

Conclusion – As you plan citizen engagement activities, think about where you are on the Maslow hierarchy of needs. Are you meeting the base needs? Are you connecting the base needs to the deeper engagement?

Here’s my presentation on the topic I did on Monday in Ottawa

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Don Duggins

Interesting observation … it would be remarkable if by actively deploying a government strategy premised on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs administrators saw much more significant progress than in years prior.

Henry Brown

ONEof the problems I see with this “mindset” is that all the “customers” are put into the same “level” on the triangle…

Griff Wigley


It’s intriguing but ultimately I don’t think it works because Maslow’s hierarchy is designed to help us think about addressing an individual person’s needs (this first, then that), whereas a government’s citizen engagement practices address its own needs as well as the needs of the collective group of citizens.

A City’s desire to implement See Click Fix, for example, can be driven primarily by its financial need to harness the eyes of the citizenry to help take better care of its streets, not just to be responsive to citizen complaints of potholes. The City, not the citizen, is just as easily seen as the ‘needy’ one.

As an individual citizen, I might have little or no interest in using the City’s website for transactions or viewing council minutes/video, but I might really be interested in participating in a webinar about the pros and cons of locations for a skatepark. The Maslow hierarchy doesn’t seem to be helpful in this case, as I don’t think a City would dictate that only people who’ve used its online transaction services are eligible to participate in the webinar.

See the problem?

So instead of viewing the problem as a spectrum or hierarchy from Transactions to Deep engagement, I think it’s more helpful to consider a range or spectrum of citizen involvement practices for BOTH Transactions/service delivery AND policy making.

This isn’t my idea. It’s laid out by James Svara and Janet Denhardt on page 9 of the introduction to their white paper, Connected Communities: Local Governments as a Partner in Citizen Engagement and Community Building and and I’ve found it to very helpful.

I’ve developed a presentation on this and took their table from that page and adapted it with a bit a highlighting. I’ll upload it here… and I look forward to your comments.

Don Duggins

I’m not sure I fully agree with how Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs has been characterized in some of the comments, so far. Having said this, if indeed there is a mismatch then I think that mismatch has to be based on an accurate description of the developer’s original goal.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs was never meant to slate all humans into one category; rather it was to demonstrate that people place certain priorities on various needs – all of which are active simultaneously – but that certain types of needs dominate others when they all go unfulfilled. For example, if a person has no food, they have no place to live, and their life is in danger then offering them an opportunity to self-actualize by leading a process improvement team won’t mean a lot. On the other hand, once the pain in his or her stomach has been addressed, their life is no longer in danger, and they have a decent place to live in … their self-actualization needs become more important.

So, Maslow’s contribution is more about (1) all needs are not equally important and (2) human needs can potentially be clustered into a distinct taxonomy. From this, such needs can be both better understood and more aptly addressed. Consequentially, the application in government is not for government to group all citizens into any given cluster or level, but individual citizens are naturally associated with a given level of the hierarchy based on the needs which are most urgent to them at any given point in time. For example, those who are in need of basic items, such as food, home (not just merely shelter), healthcare, etc., are innately associated with programs designed to address second level needs. Leadership roles and other types of socially contributive interaction are more closely associated with the top level of the hierarchy (these needs are also a little more complicated to fulfill).

As an Industrial Systems Engineer (ISE or IE for short), Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is one of the foundational theories in human behavior that provides clarity to certain dynamics in human-technological systems. So, though it is important to discuss challenges to the application of the hierarchy, we need to first start with an accurate characterization.

Sterling Whitehead

Broad and elegant at once. Despite the criticisms below, I think this is a generally useful way to understand what citizens want in a simple format.

Victoria A. Runkle

This concept has a level of simplicity to, at least, begin a dialogue with some folks who are not yet engaged with the change both necessary and occurring. In the public sector, there remains a few people not yet engaged above transactional. Wigley’s presentation is very good. It is a bit complex as a first step with some folks who dont have a conceptional idea of the goals.

Griff Wigley

Victoria, good point. That snippet from my presentation is indeed complex, sitting there on its own.

Back in 2007, the folks at IAP2 designed a participation grid (PDF) that was the basis for the improved grid by Svara and Denhardt that I adapted and posted earlier. The middle section of the IAP2 grid has a “Promise to the Public” section that I find to be a simpler way of explaining the spectrum or participation/engagement goals. I’ve excerpted it here:


Geoff – Nice slide & grid. How do you think topic plays a role? Obviously inform to empower on DMV issues is different than zoning issues


Don – Thanks for your comment. Not sure if I totally get all the details.

I think there’s two ways of thinking about your comment:

-As a citizen where you fit in meeting your needs, affects what you want from government. For example, if you are barely getting by, you solely want benefits delivered. While if most of your needs met, you may be up for a higher level engagement like direct dialogue on open data

-Another way of thinking about it is each citizen has their own hierarchy of needs – so even if all your needs are met you still have hierarchy of govt needs – so even if doing very well you still have transactional low-level needs like DMV parking tix to higher end needs

Which one are you referring to most?

Griff Wigley

Steve, yes indeed, “inform to empower on DMV issues is different than zoning issues.”

I’ve added a clean screencapture of the grid by Svara and Denhardt below. But they have a paragraph in their white paper about it:

“Engagement can also occur in service delivery. The participation of residents in assessing services can include their active involvement in determining what should be assessed and what the results mean (Callahan and Woolum). Governments can partner with citizens in carrying out activities that achieve common objectives. Residents can contribute to the creation of services and assume ultimate responsibility for addressing some community needs, e.g., changes in the consumption of resources. In this sense, citizens can be empowered by government, or government can accept the initiatives of citizens and when appropriate provide assistance to their efforts.”

Here’s the language they use in the INVOLVE category:

“Involve citizens in deciding which services to evaluate and in assessment of results.”

“Involve citizens as volunteers and in production of services.”

They don’t give examples so let me make a stab at it. A city creates a service delivery task force of citizens. One of their recommendations is for neighborhoods to organize volunteers to dig out fire hydrants after heavy snowfalls. They evaluate the results after a year and make a recommendation on whether or not to continue.

Does that help?

Here’s their full grid:

Don Duggins

Steve – good question and quite honestly both. Try thinking of it as not mutually exclusive, but as a manifestation of an underlying phenomenon – human needs vary in thier level of urgency.

Griff Wigley

Steve, I particularly like your slide #10, the Engagement funnel. I might steal that. 😉

But what about adding a second funnel, one that depicts the reverse?

Many people come to increased awareness by FIRST engaging. In other words, the pleasure/fun of interesting conversation is what gets them initially interested and THEN they are more motivated to learn/consume content.

With either one in real life, of course, it doesn’t stay linear for very long. To paraphrase the Music Man song:

“Read a little, talk a little, read a little, talk a little, cheep cheep cheep, talk a lot, read a little more.”