Do government agencies and councils deliberately make it harder for citizens to engage?

I’ve been watching a great TEDx talk by Dave Meslin on citizen engagement, which asks the question – if governments want to be open and engaging, why do they make it so hard for citizens to engage?

He raises a very good point, and demonstrates it very clearly in the video (below).

This is one of the areas I’ve struggled with for years.

Some of the processes governments and councils put in place around citizen engagement are designed to address political considerations, such as minimising the advertising spend (so government is not seen to promote itself too much), or address agency resourcing or timing limits, such as having extremely short engagement processes or ‘hiding’ consultations deep in a website so they receive only a few responses to analyse.

There’s also cases where the people managing the consultation don’t really understand the audience they are consulting. They may use specialist terminology, language or documents so long and complex they are impenetrable to the average Australian (who has an 8th grade reading level – that of a 14-15 year old), let alone the 46% of Australians who were considered functionally illiterate just a few years ago.

As an example, I recall an Australian council development proposal just a few years ago that was 385 pages long, provided via a sub-page in their website (with a limited number of printed copies) where people were expected to provide feedback within two weeks, responding via email.

Most Australians couldn’t finish a 385 page novel in two weeks (given the amount of time per day they’d have available to read), let alone a complex planning document – even if they could find it in the council’s website in time.

Response methods are equally an issue.

Holding a community forum or town hall meeting is still a popular way of consulting, and suits people who have the time and the interest to dedicate several hours to travel to and attend such an event in order to speak for a few minutes for or against a proposal. However many are increasingly dominated by retirees, the unemployed or students – who have the time to attend.

Professionals, people with young families, shift workers and tradies often don’t have the time available when councils and agencies wish to hold these events.

Email-based online consultation, which is still the predominant way Australian governments ask for feedback via the internet, is dangerous in a number of ways. Emails may be blocked due to large document attachments or misclassified as spam and lost (as has happened on several occasions in the last few years – almost costing Ministers their jobs).

The generic form of responses received through emails may not suit the complexity of the consultation process. An email response to, for example, that 385 page document, may be very difficult to match against the key topics and themes, requiring a lot of time for a council or agency to analyse.

Then there’s the cost and complexity of publishing responses. One of my pet hates while working in government online communications was the policy area who came to us and said, “we’ve just held a consultation and received 500 email responses – could you publish them in the website within two days please.”

The resourcing required to publish email responses – even without considering the accessibility and privacy considerations – was immense, and was never budgeted for by the policy area.

These issues reflect on what I feel is the key issue with citizen engagement – not the common view that citizens are disengaged, but the challenge to governments to adapt their engagement approaches to provide the right environment and information for citizens to get involved and respond.

While governments tout their openness and transparency, how they are adopting a ‘citizen-centric’ focus and employing techniques like crowdsourcing and co-design to involve communities in decision-making, are they making the necessary changes in their own processes, approaches and people to ensure that citizen engagement is actually inclusion and effective?

In my view there’s a long way to go – in Australia and in similar nations around the world – to retrain public servants, politicians and even the media, to put citizens at the centre of engagement.

It’s not simply about engaging more or using online. It is about rewriting community engagement guidelines, redeveloping consultation procedures and revisiting political concerns to ensure that citizen engagement is indeed about engaging citizens, and not simply about ticking a procedural box in a government process.

For citizens to be central in engagement, perhaps governments and councils should be approaching citizens to involve them in codesigning their engagement processes.

Perhaps groups of citizens should be commissioned (at a small fee for their time) oversee or audit agency and council engagements, to provide advise and suggestions on how specific processes could be improved, or consultation materials adjusted to suit the audience being targeted.

Perhaps governments should even crowdsource the development of major consultation processes. Before asking citizens ‘do you want….’ they should ask ‘how should we engage you on do you want….’ for each major engagement.

Whatever the approaches taken, one thing is clear. If governments and councils want citizens to feel more engaged, they need to start by changing the way they engage.

Repeatedly using the same approaches to citizen engagement as have been used in the past is unlikely to deliver improved outcomes.

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Dennis McDonald

Craig, I don’t know how it is in Australia, but one of my frustrations with government agencies here in the U.S. is that there is often not a person and contact information associated with an agency or program that you can contact directly. Yes, we have email forms and sometimes blog-type discussion forums, and many agencies now have dedicated Facebook pages, but sometimes what you just want to do is to pick up the phone and call someone and you don’t have any idea about who does what at the agency. One think tank I know has made a strong push for the US Government to publish organization charts with contact information and that might help since the best engagement is really person to person.


I like Twitter Town Halls for a number of reasons, but mostly because it encourages more online participation in an open forum and allows for huge numbers of participants. Questions can be posted ahead of the Town Hall using a #hashtag that is publicized ahead of time.