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Talk to Me: Dr. Ted R. Smith on Engaging Citizens through Established Conversations

On April 17th, Chris Dorobek was joined by a panel of professionals to talk citizen engagement on this month’s DorobekINSIDER LIVE. In the conversation with Dr. Ted R. Smith Chief Innovation Officer, Louisville Metro Economic Growth & Innovation, they discussed how the issue is not starting a conversation with the public, but rather having agencies join the conversation that is already established.

Access Vs. Engagement

“So much of the technology agenda inside of government, at all levels, is about whether government is as accessible and available and communicating with you like any other sector in our society. I don’t actually confuse any of that with actual engagement. I think of that as access.”

The goal of many transparency programs is to put information online in the hopes that citizens would find the data and then bring issues to the government. This problem with this program is that it lacks the interactive component in order to be considered “engagement.” It needs to be a two way conversation, preferably directed by the public instead of agencies guessing at what the important issues are.

The Opportunity

“The real opportunity space that we’re working right now is not how government opens lines of communication with citizens but rather how government is a participant in a conversation that citizens are having.”

The conversations are happening in all different parts of society on all different types of media platforms. Instead of creating service programs to fix roads, agencies should jump into the conversations that already exist and reveal more about the actual wants of the community. There are online forums, tweets at agencies and agency leaders, and Facebook groups (etc.) where people are talking about what bothers them, what they are looking for and even their expectations of the various levels governments. “That is a direct kind of dialogue with lots of issues about issues that are important to them.”

Replacing a Broken Methodology

Getting involved in current conversations created by citizens is “a complete departure from a history of government communicating with the media, the media communicating with the citizen, kind of a waterfall and that’s the way it works. And then we hear from citizens when they attend meetings and they make public comments. The whole framework quite frankly, misses all of conversations that are going on in a community.”

With the public waiting to hear from agencies through the often misrepresented news from the media and agencies waiting to hear from the public in pre-determined settings, its no wonder that the lines of communication are muddled. So the only way for agencies to really engage with the public is to cut out the middle-man and have a direct conversation.

Start Playing

“If you don’t respond, that is not good. It’s a very punishing environment, you’re either playing or you’re not; you can’t be sort of part-playing. So there is a kind of vigilance that’s required to really authentically say you’re really in the conversation. It requires follow up, it requires participation.”

The best way to begin engaging citizens is to respond to them. Re-Tweet them, answer Facebook questions, join a forum discussion. It’s a full-time job but in the end citizens will feel more confident in government. Real citizen engagement will give agencies a better direction and provide the public with a stronger feeling of political efficacy.

“The conversation is already happening and we need to be in the conversation.”

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