The Power of In-Person Engagement


Without question, the future of citizen engagement lies in technology. The two-way street of communication between government agencies and individuals has never been wider. We can interact with a speed and ease that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago, let alone 50.

But as we rush into a multi-channel future, let’s not forget the first channel: face-to-face contact. A handshake. A conversation. Help, in person.

There is a power to the individual, in-person experience that’s hard to replicate. Even if you can hear someone’s voice, much of communication lies in what they don’t say – nonverbal cues and body language. We understand each other better when we’re in the same room.

When I attended the National Child Support Enforcement Association (NCSEA) Leadership Symposium last week, this lesson really hit home. It being New Orleans, we had the highly unusual experience of a hearing and seeing a stellar brass band marching through the ballroom during a plenary session. People who had been shifting and settling in their hotel chairs, sipping their coffee, were transformed. We rose, we clapped in time, we even marched, weaving our way between the rows. We grinned at each other, happier after the experience than before. That doesn’t happen over the phone and it doesn’t happen on Twitter. It happens in a place, with people, together.

Brass bands are even rarer in government offices than they are at national conferences, but the idea stuck with me: We shouldn’t lose sight of how experiences in person are different in kind to those online.

I’m not saying that someone needs to be assigned to linger in the reception area of every local human services office across the country during business hours, just on the off-chance someone might walk in hoping to talk to them. Cost constraints alone would nix that plan. Even more importantly, it doesn’t seem like that’s what  constituents want.

With the trend toward self-service, constituents can access information with a single click on the mobile phone already in their hand. They don’t have to do it the old way: making an appointment, getting into a car, driving to a specific and possibly inconvenient location, waiting and then waiting some more. Clearly, it’s a public good that a single mom receiving SNAP assistance can access her benefits by payment card instead of waiting for a check and knows from her phone just what her balance is. It’s great that anyone can search for unclaimed property that belongs to them, no matter where they live or where the funds might be, on a single website. Interactive Voice Response units are available in the middle of the night, when customer service representatives aren’t. Technology has done, and will continue to do, a lot of good in government services.

But is there a place for town halls that are really held in a town hall, with face-to-face questions and answers, and not Twitter town halls, where we’re sending 140-character volleys into the ether with no sure promise of engagement? I think so. It’s up to agencies everywhere to decide how to factor in-person engagement into their citizen engagement plans.

Jael Maack 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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