Want Better Citizen Engagement? Three Tips to Get There

Do you believe that the involvement of citizens in the management of the government makes government better? Are you willing to do things differently to reach a different segment of the population?

One of the leaders I respect the most has often been heard to say that public servants are at their best when they partner with citizens. The point is that citizens make us better. Another leader I have great respect for, sort of a lovable curmudgeon, once told me that 99% of citizens just want to be left alone, and don’t want to know that government exists, and that the remaining 1% will always let you know how they feel. You won’t have to ask them. I think his percentages are way off, but he is basically right.

I agree that the vast majority of the population only wants the government around when their house is on fire or they need some other service. However, I think there is an untapped segment of citizens that we do not understand very well. This is the segment of citizens in the middle that would participate in engagement if it were convenient for them, designed with them in mind (aka citizen-centric) and most important of all: if it was about a compelling topic. This group is less agenda-driven and hopefully more civil than the ultra-involved group.

So we have three segments of citizens, from an engagement perspective:

  • The hyper-involved (very small group overall)
  • The untapped potential.
  • The uninvolved (the overwhelming majority)

So, how do we, and should we, engage with these three segments of residents?

Hyper-involved – An ultra small group, you do not have to make extra effort. They will find you. They are agenda-driven and ever-present. You know they will be at public meetings and hearings. Effectively dealing with them and making their contribution to government meaningful is the subject of another blog post.

Uninvolved – The vast majority of the citizens, the best bet is to deliver outstanding services to them when they need them, professionally manage the government for them and be good stewards of their tax dollars. Oh, and leave them alone.

Untapped Potential – A small but hopefully manageable group. Stop for a moment and consider the thoughts of the first leader I mentioned. Ask yourself a key question – to what degree does your organization believe that involving citizens make them better able to design and deliver services? The answer to the question guides how you approach the residents in the middle.

Here are three things to keep in mind about finding and engaging the group in the middle, untapped potential:

  1. Change – You will have to do something different to find and involve them. Otherwise, they would already be involved. This is the hardest part. For example if you have been having public meetings for 100 years and all of a sudden you want to have an e-town hall to broaden the participation, expect some pushback.
  2. Citizen Terms – If you want them involved, you will have to make it on their terms. Go where they are, when it is convenient for them, demonstrate that you understand them. Don’t expect them to attend a public hearing during bath time. Don’t send a english-only speaker to a latino neighborhood event. Show up at the soccer field to ask survey questions. Do they all have smartphones? Are they on Facebook? Meet them there.
  3. Choose Wisely – Pick areas to involve them in. Don’t ask for feedback on topics that won’t change as a result of the engagement! In other words, don’t waste their time. Pick topics where you will be prepared to demonstrate what you received in terms of feedback and what you did with it. This is extremely important. If you want to build an involved base of “the middle” citizens, show them that their opinions matter.

Government that take steps to involve the middle group of citizens will reap rewards that come from having balance in the citizen voice. Government that does not take these steps runs the risk of only hearing from the hyper-involved few.

Barry Condrey 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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