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How can federal agencies use social media to increase civic participation?

Anna York and I have spent the last 6 months working on a report looking at how U.S. Federal Agencies can use social media to enhance civic participation. Our work focuses more on the civic participation side than the web 2.0 side, and we hope that this report will help agencies as they begin to implement their forthcoming Open Government Plans.

We would like to thank Kevin Bennett of the Federal Communication Commission’s Broadband Taskforce, without whose dedication and helpful direction this project would not have been possible.

Our advisors, Professor and Co-Director of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation
Archon Fung
and the Institute of Politics Director, Mayor Bill Purcell were always encouraging and patient throughout this process, and provided helpful feedback during the year. Julie Wilson and Jee Baum were also generous in their assistance as we developed our methodological approach.

We would especially like to thank those practitioners in the field who took the time to speak with us at length about their experiences in online engagement. Several also generously helped us make contact with others – in particular Justin Kerr-Stevens, Steve Ressler, Dominic Campbell and Jeffrey Levy gave us great assistance in this regard.

Finally we are grateful to the Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the Harvard Kennedy School for providing the financial support for our research.

Our main findings suggest what people tend to support in the field – its not about the technology, its about the systems, agencies, people, and goals behind these projects that count. However, conditions in this field are constantly changing (as they should be!) and this work simply highlights some interesting ideas and frameworks that emerged at a snapshot in time. We hope that it provides a useful framework and look forward to your comments and feedback.

Civic engagement is a critical element of our democratic process. It has many potential benefits for public policy professionals, including:
• creating public value in the form of better public decisions that capture local knowledge,
• increasing the capacity of a society to understand the decision making process in government to help solve complex or “wicked” policy problems,
• increasing support for public decision in the form of increased legitimacy of policy solutions and decisions potentially conceived across ideological lines.

The emergence of sophisticated online tools and platforms that support large-scale, multi-party dialogue, collaboration, data amalgamation and ranking suggest a new low-cost technical capacity for increased civic engagement via the internet, which also lowers the barriers to participation for citizens.

The opportunity provided by the development of these new tools as well as the stated commitment of the Obama Administration to increase civic engagement is clear. However, many of the ‘digital engagement’ projects initiated at the federal level have focused on using social media to communicate with citizens in a broadcast mode. There is still significant untapped potential to use social media to engage citizens in a deeper participatory process.

Our findings suggest that there are actions that the U.S. federal government can take at four levels that will help create conditions that foster increased civic engagement:

1. Systemic conditions create the context for successful engagement

Systemic conditions refer to the political, policy and legal contexts in which agencies’ digital engagement efforts take place. Systemic conditions are important because they give agencies permission to engage in this work, create a sense of urgency to move forward, and provide a common context for agencies to work together.

Key systemic conditions include the issuing of executive level directives, lowering of legal, security, and policy barriers, and the appointment of whole-of-government coordinators and networks.

The United States has made a significant amount of progress at this level, specifically through the Open Government Directive and the Open Government Working Group ; however, to enhance capacity at the systemic level agencies should:

• recognize that executive level directives are a necessary but insufficient condition for success,
• support the further development of the government-wide support, such as that which is coordinated through the General Services Administration (GSA),
• push for a policy/engagement centered network (possibly through the Open Government Working Group).

2. Engagement as a practice must be integrated into the agency’s organizational structure and culture

At the agency’s organizational level of analysis, our findings suggest that support at the agency’s executive level is a critical factor in driving uptake and improvement in digital engagement. Similarly, cultivation of and support for committed individuals across the agency has been reported to accelerate growth in agency capacity.

Finally, the organizational structure and culture of an agency should reflect the role of engagement in shaping policy formation and implementation, in order for citizen participation efforts to be successful.

The United States has made progress in the realm, but where gaps exist agencies should:

• identify and support executive level leaders –both inside and outside of the agency,
• provide opportunities for personal access, training, and experimentation with social media to staff throughout the agency,
• create cross-functional teams (public affairs, legal, communications, policy, etc) to manage online engagement efforts,
• invest in the development of engagement skills among policy officers, in addition to supporting technical capacity.

3. Online strategy should be driven by engagement goals

At the level of individual engagement projects, we have identified four factors that define a successful project. First engagement objectives must be well defined, and guide the selection of social media tools. Second, these nominated objectives must be closely connected to metrics that are appropriate for gauging the level of success in relation to engagement goals.

Finally, two kinds of feedback loops must be built into digital engagement projects: an internal feedback loop that allows agencies to learn from accumulated experiences with engagement, and an external loop that connects citizens’ engagement efforts to agencies’ policy settings and implementation.

Projects in the United States are primarily focused on communicating through social media. In order to deepen engagement, project managers should:

• design projects around clearly specified engagement goals, and choose technical tools based on these goals,
• create metrics that align with the organization’s mission and engagement goals,
• ensure each engagement project includes a feedback mechanism for agencies to absorb lessons from the project evaluation,
• be prepared to appropriately respond to citizen input before engagement begins.

4. Fostering relationships based on interest and trust increases the likelihood citizens will invest in deeper engagement

Taking the interests of key constituent groups into account when designing projects and fostering an on-going relationship between individuals and groups can facilitate access to existing communities willing to engage and can deepen the level of engagement.

In order to create the conditions necessary for success at the citizen level agencies should:

• invest in the development and maintenance of an on-going relationship with online communities of interest,
• research the interests and capacities of communities targeted for engagement, and understand where key constituent groups are likely to engage online.

Civic engagement is an important element of our democratic process, and online tools may provide a unique opportunity to engage. However, it is important that agencies not only focus on using tools because they exist; they need to think through how these tools can support deep engagement, and create conditions that allow citizens to participate in a meaningful and impactful way. For more support please consult APPENDIX G: Guidance for a set of tools we have created to assist agencies in the implementation of these recommendations.

Finally, here is the full 86-page report for those who are interested in methodology, literature review, full findings, recommendations in action, our bibliography, and additional appendices:

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Patrick Quinn

Extremely interesting. We’ve been doing online citizen outreach at KDOT for more than a year, and have had excellent success.

Yasmin Fodil

Congrats and thanks for your comment! We definitely found that if done well it can be rewarding in many ways.

Christina Morrison

Social Media is a fast and easy was to for governement to engage with citizens. From schools informing parents of an early dismissle time to DoT updating citizens of road closings. It’s all about keeping everyone informed and educated on what is going on in the world around us.