Connecting With Non-Participants


The city hall was packed with what seemed like over 100 agitated residents. I worked for the county and was at the city council meeting to do a short, non-controversial presentation about an information item which had nothing to do with whatever everyone was so hyped about. The mayor asked if I would go on first. I asked if he was worried about the big crowd. He hesitated before responding, then looked me in the eye and said something like, “These people will make their point but I am more worried about the opinion of the other 30,000 residents.”

About 139 million Americans voted in the last election. About 187 million did not vote. Forty percent of those eligible to vote did not vote. Nobody under the age of 18 legally voted. The focus may be rightfully on the will of the actual voters but we need to be cognizant of the fact that the majority of people did not vote.

Agencies and other organizations have to focus on those who participate but remember there are large numbers of people within their jurisdictions who do not participate. There are all sorts of reasons people do not actively participate: apathy, too busy, shy other priorities, etc. Maybe they just feel your organization is not relevant to their lives. Maybe they are busy working against your agency and do not want to associate with the enemy.

Clearly, when someone does not actively participate, organizations should not treat them as if they do not exist. Those who do not participate still exist. The relevance of our organization is reduced to the extent we ignore non-active participants. School children do not vote but are important constituents for organizations wanting to reduce pollution.

It is no big revelation that connected technology is how an organization can connect with non-participants. Connected technology is pervasive. It is currently the only practical way to connect to a group with whom you do not have a current connection with.

Organizations already use connected technology. Whether the organization expands the use of the technology to also connect with non-participates is a question only your organization can answer. However, there is a question you might want to ask yourself. Would you as an individual employee of an organization want to work on the project to interact with others who currently are not active participants?

Whether you will have the opportunity is a whole other question. However, it is amazing how often wanting to do something leads to an opportunity to actually do it.

Here are some things to think about.

Do you agree that your organization needs to expand its relationship to include those with whom they do not currently interact?

Some people love working on the front lines with active participants. Are you one of these? Would the “mushy” work of building relationships with non-active participants be something you could adjust to?

Some other people want to be in the back room greasing the wheels to keep the organization running. They focus on policy or systems support. Do these people want to expand the organization’s relationship to include those with whom they do not currently interact?

Then there are people who define interesting as trying to make something where there is currently nothing. They want to move the ball down the field. They want the experience of building something new. Working to build an organization’s relationship with people who currently do not have a relationship with an organization is a challenge they want to undertake.

The mayor understood that the 100 energized people in that council room may or may not represent the views of the 30,000 who were not in that room. The effort to reach those who are not engaged means trying many different approaches, most of which will take time to work or prove they do not work. It will not be easy.

One of the characteristics of connected technology is that it generally scales pretty well. It takes the same amount of effort to do a Facebook post no matter how many people view it. There are all sorts of ways connected technology can be used to extend the reach of your organizations to people who are not currently engaged. Actually figuring out the secret sauce to make it work could be interesting.

Most organizations define themselves by the participants with which they interact. However, organizations are an interactive part of a larger community. To be a relevant part of the larger community, the organization needs to interact with the larger community.

The way to expand the reach of an organization is to do what it takes. The organization has to reach out and interact. Theoretically, maybe it could happen by accident but generally, it takes a lot of work by dedicated professionals to get the job done.

The job is to make your agency relevant to the lives of all of your resident population, whether they have an active relationship with your agency or not.

I do not have kids in school but I think the school district should make an effort to keep me engaged in the education of the kids in our area. I will retire this coming year but I think the economic development folks should keep me engaged in what they are doing.

Of course, agencies have to focus on active participants.  However, we need to also focus on those who are not active.

All voices matter.

Paul Leegard is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Catherine Andrews

Great post, Paul! It gave me a lot of perspective and a lot to think about in terms of what we are doing to reach our less connected audience members.

Alexa McKenna

You bring up a great point Paul. I’d be interested to hear different ways agencies have successfully connected with non-participants.