The need for micro-participation

A theme I’ve been returning to on a regular basis in the talks I’ve been giving lately has been about the need for government to make participation easier.

I’ve blogged in my usual half-assed manner about the participation deficit before, and it strikes me that this is an important issue that is both not going away and also is probably going to get worse.

I tend to highlight myself as an example of the problem here, in that despite being one of the very few people in the world who actually find government interesting, I never actually engage myself. I’ve not been to a council meeting, responded to a survey or questionnaire, and never given feedback through another route.

Why is this? It’s not that I’m lazy (keep quiet at the back), nor that I don’t care. It’s mainly that the instruments of local democracy just don’t fit in with my lifestyle.

The most obvious culprit here is the meeting. It strikes me that the dominance of meetings pretty much means that anyone with a family and a job (or perhaps even just one of those) is excluded from the process.

Read the boy a story before bed time, or go to the town hall to talk about a planning application? Not a difficult choice, but the answer means that participation is always going to be low.

Perhaps there’s an opportunity here to learn from the micro-volunteering that is becoming increasingly popular. An easy, quick way to get involved in civic activity that fits into people’s lives the way they are lived now, not fifty years ago.

After all, I may not be able to give up two (or more!) hours of an evening to attend a council meeting, but I’m sat in front of a computer almost all day, and could easily take 15 minutes or longer out to get involved, perhaps by answering some questions, providing ideas, or identifying problems.

Even better, with a smartphone and a bit of geo-tagging, why not tell me how I can contribute from exactly where I am?

Getting involved and participating shouldn’t be a chore. As I mentioned in my post about councillors, we need more people doing less, rather than the situation we have now where only a few people do far too much.

I don’t think this needs massive upheaval, or some kind of revolution in local democracy (although that might be nice). A bit of tinkering around the edges would, I’m sure, go a long way.

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I agree and I think important for people running these types of projects to consider if they participate in other similar projects themselves – and why or why not?

I agree that the ask has to be very small, simple, and meaningful

Andrew Krzmarzick

Love this post, Dave…and I’ve been thinking along the same lines over the last few months. Gov 2.0 / Open Gov needs to go “hyper-local” – making citizen engagement relevant on the neighborhood level.

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

@Dave – You are on to something here. I’m currently reading Reality is Broken and just finished the chapter on casual gaming. Your idea sounds like “casual citizenship” in which someone can take 15 minutes during their day to perform some type of civic act. The key is to develop small activities that have some benefit and can be done quickly with little training. It would require some deft project management on the government side but it would be greatly beneficial if done correctly. Read chapter five of the book because I think you might be able to apply her ideas to your ideas.

Dave Briggs

Thanks for the kind comments all, and am pleased this resonates with other people!

Too often government demands that citizens engage using government’s process, structures and mediums – but you have to ask, who is doing who the favour?

I suspect there’s an assumption there that for an activity to be worthwhile, it has to be painful, boring and difficult. Maybe that explains why so few people can be bothered to get involved.

Sarah Giles

@Bill – I’m in the midst of Reality is Broken as well, and saw the author give a talk here in Portland, OR recently. Haven’t gotten to chapter 5 yet – might skip ahead!

I haven’t heard the term micro-participation yet – got a definition? Or did I just miss it somewhere?

I’ll give one little example that is being tested out in the Portland Metro area, where I live (and I’m actually a “member” of this, providing my input when asked) – – it’s fairly new, so I don’t think we can say what kind of an impact it’s having.

Dave Briggs

Hey Sarah

No definition just yet, from me, anyway. A quick google shows that some people have used the term before but not in a particularly defined way.

I think something along the lines of “Providing a means for citizens to interact with democratic and government processes at a time, in a place and in an medium that suits them” is fairly close to what I’m talking about.

Dave Briggs

Yes – “a method to engage ‘many, unconnected individuals’ while minimising time and opportunity costs to personal involvement” is quite nice.

Sarah Giles

I think what it really comes down to is what Dr. Cowley points out in the presentation on SNAPP that Andrew shared (thanks, Andrew!) and her biggest lesson learned on slide 41 “Failure to influence decision-making.” Would definitely be interested to hear more from her about this – and about how micro-participation can successfully influence decision-making.

Dave Briggs

It’s certainly true that for M-P to work, the adage that interactive websites need interactive organisations remains true.

It’s no point making it easy for people to participate if they’re going to be ignored. Ease of access increases expectations which must be met for the process to have credibility!

Wayne Moses Burke

Great thoughts, Dave et al.

I’d like to support the point you just made and extend it by saying that the most important part of creating an interactive government is internal culture change. This is not easy for anyone to do – whether you are inside government or outside it, but it is a responsibility that we all bear if we’re interested in connected citizens to government in sustainable ways.

As you point out above, government means of interaction do not meet the needs of most citizens today. Your solution is one solid possibility, but most likely is not a complete solution either. Those of us here on GovLoop (and our computer literate brethren across the country) may be helped by this, but there are a great number of people for whom this is not an appropriate solution. Government, in many cases, is mandated to provide equal opportunity to all citizens, and this means that they need to be trying many different ways of providing participatory opportunities. Unfortunately, each of these takes time and money – both of which are hard to come by for most government employees.

As a practical matter then, I challenge you and whoever is interested enough in this to find a local government department to work with and develop a case study and proof of concept.

I wonder what part of local government would work best for this? What could you (and 100 or 1000 other people) do in 5 – 15 minutes that would be beneficial to government and relevant to your interests? The first thing that comes to my mind is potholes and other issue reporting akin to but I think you’re thinking along a line that has a deeper connection inside government.

Daniel Honker

What a rich discussion! The SNAPPatx case is fascinating. They found a way to convert conversations on social-media platforms into usable, meaningful data. One of the big barriers to new participation initiatives is getting people to visit your *new* website — if you can leverage what’s being said on existing platforms, that’s so much easier. Plus, they embraced the opportunity to actually interact with people on twitter and tease out more info from their comments. Imagine if local gov did that more…

The ever-important lessons learned (slide 41) resonate with me. All roads point to culture change…

Jennifer Cowley

Hi all, glad you are enjoying the slideshare on the SNAPPatx project. The full article that explains in more detail the key challenges including the failure of the City of Austin to integrate the participation results into the planning process can be downloaded free at

Daniel, I agree that the exciting part of this project was leveraging what was said on existing platforms. So we can claim success that if you find people where they are already talking they will participate.

Wayne brought up the example of potholes. New York City is all over this with their hugely successful The Pothole Daily This success led to much more substantial use of social media in the city departments.

Jennifer Cowley

For all, glad the slideshare is appreciated, I actually have the live lecture available for view at scroll down to April 1, 2011.

Sarah, so my elevator definition of micro-participation is participation at the convenience of participants.

If you follow me on Twitter @EvansCowley this month I’m tweeting one link daily to interesting examples of local governments use of egovernment to promote engagement and information sharing. This week is focused on apps. And I have a quick YouTube video I posted lecturing on examples of apps

Dave Briggs

Jennifer – apologies if I am asking a dumb question but I haven’t had the chance to read through all the resources that have been shared so far – but have you seen micro-participation type stuff happening outside the planning process?

Jennifer Cowley

Well, my focus is specifically on local government planning, but that said I believe that the SNAPPatx case study is the only example out there of a government going out and scraping Twitter and engaging with people already having conversations.

There are lots of examples of govts experimenting with social media, just not in this same way.

Another planning related one that I think is amazing is That just launched last month. They are sending people out on the streets with ipads to get online participation as well as all of their other social media interaction points. In the first month they have already generated something like 30K in microblogs.

Perhaps others know of microparticipation examples. I’d love to hear about anything else that is out there.

Sterling Whitehead

Dave, I think you’re onto something with micro-volunteering. I see this as a real opportunity for government websites. For example, if offered a mobile version or Android app, I’d use the site while sitting on the bus and subway on the way to work.

Dave Briggs

Jennifer – good points. We have FixMyStreet here in the UK which I guess is a form of micro-participation, like SeeClickFox. It strikes me as being a rather shallow form of participation, in that you report something and that’s kind of it. What might be more interesting is finding a way of encouraging people to give up slivers of time to help fix the problem themselves.

Planning is a good example of where government makes participating hard though, certainly here in the UK. Most consultations involve downloading 200 page PDF documents written in some weird government-ese that nobody normal can understand, and then you either have to write a letter, fill in some hideously complicated form on a consultation ‘platform’ or turn up to a meeting to give your views.

Hoe about showing just a few key details, some photos, some mockups of how things might look, and just ask people ‘is this a good idea?’

I’m also keen to see how micro-participation can be brought to play within democratic involvement. Voting is fairly micro, but only happens once every four or five years (over here, anyway). How can people be involved and have their voices heard without having to regularly dedicated hours of their time every week?



I like your idea but it is only part of the solution.

Real change will only occur when people (plural) get off their collective behinds and get out and do encourage participation. Arm chair jockeys who want to sit at their computers (or iPhones on a bus) can contribute but this alone will not deliver the “open government” outcomes of transparency, PARTICIPATION and collaboration.

For example, I have taken Wayne’s advice below (well before Wayne provided it here), I went out and found a local government body that was innovative enough to understand the importance of open government (to them and their communities). I spent a lot of my time searching and conjoling and finally will deliver a “Local Open Government Innovation Summit” in regional NSW, Australia at Nowra. This will be a first in Australia. It came from the initiative of Lucas Cioffi (Co-Organizer Local OpenGov Innovation Summits) and others in US.

For anyone that is interested have a look at our progress and see what hard work and an innovative frame of mind can deliver;

We are open to any suggestions from others on how to make this a great event for those locals interested in participation and “engagement” (collaboration) with government.

Jennifer Cowley

Yes See Click Fix is a simple form of this engagement. What has been interesting about See Click Fix is that it has changed from simply reporting a problem to in many cities a community that is coming together to solve their own problems. This form of volunteerism gets to exactly what MatrixIP points to. That it requires participation to make things happen.

In Australia, I have come across FixVegas which operates similarly to See Click Fix for Brisbane. There is also another interesting App for Victoria Country Fire Authority called CFA Fireready

Dave Briggs

“MatrixIP” – I think you misunderstand where I am coming from. The point I’m making is that there is a large group of people who would love to ‘get off their behinds’ but who can’t contribute because it simply doesn’t fit into their lifestyles. I wouldn’t call these people ‘armchair jockeys’ – I’d call them hard working mums and dads.

The notion that small, online activities somehow don’t count seems a bit exclusionary to me. After all, there are plenty of people who manage to do their jobs entirely online, so why it shouldn’t be possible to participate meaningfully that way?

Besides, I think it ought to be possible to micro-participate offline as well as on. This isn’t just a digital thing.

Pam Broviak


It’s exciting to read your post because I currently have something in development for my city that would allow something very close to what you are suggesting. It came out of the need to do more with less, and our city administrator, who by the way is awesome, gave me the approval to try it out. I was very hesitant to launch it because it is built on the model you suggest – micro-involvement. I’ve seen it succeed in other structures, but have not yet seen it used in government. But after reading your post and the responses, maybe everyone won’t think it’s too crazy of an idea.

The other challenge for launching something like this is that because there is no structure in place to develop and launch it, getting it all put together from scratch has taken me some time.

Anyway – thanks for giving me the encouragement to proceed!

Pam Broviak

@Jennifer – I’m hoping to have it online soon, and it will be so much easier to explain once it’s in place. Will try to finish it up over next few days!



Good comments. I like your BrisVegas reference (local humour), I will have a look.

Thanks for pointing out the benefits of a SeeClickFix app. The primary one I see (as mentioned) is that it inspires communities to get involved (and do the FIX bit). Gets communities out of their persuasion to always go to Gov for fixes and complain when they are not done in a timely manner.

This community participation is a key aspect of Open Gov (and I will certainly be explaining this at our upcoming summit).


Like Jenny, I am right behind you. Dave thinks I missed the point. Micro-participation is a great concept, but as you are finding, someone has to roll up their sleeves and make it happen. This does require people with the drive and inspiration (and I accept the time). I am also keen to see what you come up with. Please keep us in the loop.

Wayne Moses Burke


In response to your last question, I think the brilliant work done by Jennifer with the SNAPPatx project is very important, but also fundamentally different from what Dave is proposing — if I’m understanding correctly.

Government does need to reach out to where citizens are already engaging and make that information useful, but the technology is only now making that possible on a grand scale through sentiment analysis (I would like to say that I was particularly impressed with the Content Analysis on slides 34-38. This seems like an excellent basis for determining metrics that could gauge the effectiveness of citizen engagement, but I digress…)

What Dave is proposing however is applications (ideally mobile) that would enable citizens to engage meaningfully in short time spurts, like the Extraordinaries are attempting to do at

This is a fascinating idea that could lead to lower budgets, more engaged citizens, etc but getting from here to there is difficult. The point that MatrixIP is making is accurate – getting to a place where the average citizen can engage from their computer or iPhone takes a number of extraordinary citizens (or government employees) like Pam Broviak to determine government responsibilities that would benefit from the unique type of micro-engagement that this model would provide.

Pam, please do make certain that you let us all know when it goes live. I’m very anxious to see what you’ve come up with — and of course, we all stand to learn a lot from both your successes AND your failures.

Tim Bonnemann

Give a Minute Chicago (the first in a series of projects) does not seem to have had much direct impact on local decision making. I wrote about this in February: Give A Minute Chicago Follow-Up

The basis question we’re dealing with when evaluating these projects is this: are they trying to achive “public participation” (involving people in the decisions that affect them) or do they fall into the much broader “civic engagement” category (individual and collective actions designed to identify and address issues of public concern)?

I don’t have any inside knowledge into the Give a Minute initiative, but based on the things I’ve read I’d say their Chicago project may well have been worthwhile in terms of its civic engagement factor, but as a public participation exercise it failed to meet some of the basic quality standards.

Dave Briggs

Tim – have you written anywhere in more depth about the differences between public participation and civic engagement? Seems an important distinction and one I would like to understand more thoroughly.

Pam Broviak

Ok, thanks to all of your encouragement, I managed to push ahead and get something live. So I am letting all of you know about it first.

It came about because I saw people asking to volunteer to work as interns for no pay, but they didn’t always live close by. So I thought how can I take advantage of this willingness to work for free, yet deal with the distance issue. Then I realized one of the projects I have wanted to get done that will take significant time can be done from anywhere in the world. And I realized genealogists have already successfully implemented something like what I was thinking. So I asked our city admin if I could launch the project online, and she agreed (because like I pointed out before, she is awesome!).

Anyway, at the risk of people still thinking I am crazy for trying it, here’s the project site:

I definitely am interested in getting feedback – positive or negative or just constructive criticism to help make the project more successful. Thanks again for motivating me to move ahead!

Wayne Moses Burke


Huge congratulations for getting approval for the Geneva Records Project and getting it off the ground. It’s incredibly exciting!

I would say that the biggest challenge you now face is getting people to participate. While I will not pretend to be an expert in making that happen (maybe Andy can share some of his community-building expertise!), I’m happy to share some thoughts I’ve been having recently. Namely that the very notion of community-building is somewhat misleading in and of itself as it implies that you can develop a community out of nothing. This may be true in certain circumstances, but for most scenarios I think it’s more practical to think of it engaging and getting buy-in from pre-existing communities.

For your situation, who stands to benefit from (or who cares about) the city having online property records? Find those communities and individuals and you can find people who will be willing to put in the effort that you are asking them for.

I hope that’s helpful – do keep us informed of how the project goes!

Lucas Cioffi

I agree with the central premise that participation should be convenient/accessible for reasons of fairness and that doing so is consistent with the values of a democratic society. I’d like to add that making public participation simple should not always be the goal. This is a response to some of the comments which are leaning in this direction.

A few folks have already pointed out in the discussion that some forms of participation are simpler than others, such as reporting a pothole, responding to a survey, or sending in a Tweet. Many problems can benefit tremendously from simple public participation but not all problems.

To set the stage, I’ll point to the White House’s effort to crowdsource the answer to the question of “What are the grand challenges our nation should address?” The White House collected these original responses via Facebook and Twitter (and they also allowed for email submissions which were not made public). Now this is somewhat of an extreme case, because it’s asking the public to identify the biggest possible problems they could imagine and to squeeze these ideas through micro-participation channels.

Obviously no one expects any of the Facebook/Twitter messages to solve any of the grand challenges in and of themselves, but many of these microblog responses linked to ongoing efforts to find solutions. So there was value to the exercise, but I’d like to see the next generation of micro-participation go farther rather than stopping there.

I’ll posit that many of the participants have some ideas that can be directly useful in addressing some of those grand challenges. I’ll also posit that there would be tremendous value in allowing those participants to connect with each other and build on each other’s ideas. The White House’s survey effort through Twitter and Facebook was largely two-way and was not conducive to many-to-many collaboration.

So yes, all participation should be convenient/accessible (the proposed definition of micro-participation in this article), but not all participation should be simple. Some public problems require deeper collaboration where ideas can build on each other. This combination of two ideas can be much more valuable than the value of the ideas taken separately.

See the video below about good ideas arising from the combination of other ideas. When we as the opengov community consider creating simple two-way participation channels between government and individuals, we should also make space in those channels for collaboration among participants. And then we should expect to be surprised 🙂

Daniel Honker

Great point, Lucas. I think assumptions are sometimes made in the opengov community that public participation must mean tapping “the wisdom of crowds” — that masses of people doing small activities can yield big results. And this is right in a lot of situations. And it’s understandable that a lot of this comes from the technologically inclined among us — after all, tools that aggregate tons of data from a mass of people are often times pretty cool and innovative. But we shouldn’t forget that the barriers have also been lowered to more intensive, deeper participation, which can help gov in many ways that the mass collaboration cannot.

Dave Briggs

It’s a small start, but I’m putting together a project site at

I’m looking to collect existing examples and maybe get some new initiatives up and running. Most of all to spread the word about micro-participation!

There’s not a lot there at the moment, but I’ll start fleshing the site out soon.

Dave Briggs

A thought that came up when I was presenting on micro-participation yesterday…

Could we view emergency reporting via 999 (in the UK) or 911 (in the States, I guess it works the same) as a form of micro-participation? Indeed, one that works pretty well?

Jennifer Cowley

I’m not sure I’d agree that 911 is a form of micro-participation. That would be a bit of a stretch, but I think the 311 system would be much more akin to this. 311 is for reporting non-emergency problems. Many government agencies have been moving to mobile apps that allow people to take geocoded pictures and type in reports via their smartphone and submit them into the 311 system. (