You can’t expect citizens to engage with you if you don’t engage with them

I am proud of how far many Australians governments have come in their online use over the last few years. A number of agencies have begun embracing the new tools available to communicate with the public.

They are blogging, tweeting and facebooking, bypassing traditional media to share their news publicly with the Australian community.

Next however is the hard challenge – ongoing engagement.

Many agencies have Twitter accounts (over 390 at my last count), however more than two thirds of them use Twitter simply as a one-way broadcast channel. Over half of the ‘blogs’ in government that I have checked do not allow user comments. While most government Facebook pages support fan comments, the number that actually acknowledge or respond to them consistently is much lower.

While there are good examples of government using talkback radio to answer questions and engage in conversations, barely any agencies do the same on Australia’s leading online forums – some of which have more ‘listeners’ than the most well-known radio commentators.

It is no longer enough for governments to simply talk at citizens and communities in a generic and impersonal fashion. It is no longer enough for governments to build online community tools – groups, forums and blogs – and sit back, saying “we’ve done our part, it is now up to the Australian community to embrace and use them.”

I have built online communities since the mid-1990s and the formula for success has not changed.

To create engagement by the community the one with the greatest stake in the community, its creator, must engage.

As agencies, we must become active in starting and continuing conversations. Talk about issues and encourage discussion. Teach people how to converse with us and support them by demonstrating that these are safe and welcoming online ‘homes’.

Certainly there are risks and fears agencies must face. What if no-one responds, what if too many people respond, what if something slips through the approvals and gets published, what if we get criticized!!!

All are good arguments for a wallflower at any dance. Don’t put yourself out there in case you might get rejected or attract unwanted attention. It is so much easier to sit on the sidelines (even if you arranged the dance) and avoid the risk of engaging with others.

However while you can people watch, you cannot truly understand the dance until you participate.

One of the biggest concerns with governments today is how out of touch they are with communities. How remote, seemingly uninterested, how unemotional and disconnected.

We can’t expect the support of the community if we hold ourselves separate from the community. We can’t successfully do our jobs without understanding communities and being in a position to influence them. We can’t afford to let the relationship break down, to drift away like a ship in the night.

Not engaging risks calling our own governments into disrepute, damaging our governments’ ability to support the will of the people and create positive change, ultimately rendering us ineffective.

The signs of this are growing all around.

And so engagement becomes the least risk strategy. Actually talking with real people, within certain constraints, in real conversations. Not just holding short-term consultations, but appointing ‘citizen engagement officers’, like ‘stakeholder engagement officers’, whose role is not customer service but citizen understanding. People who engage through online fora, traditional media and offline events to bridge the gaps between citizens and government at all levels. (Of course everyone in the public service should be able to do this – but one step at a time.)

So, in conclusion, let’s build better engagement with citizens by building engagement, not just by building tools for engagement and hoping we can sit on the sidelines and watch.

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Justin Kerr-Stevens

Great post Craig.

There are some moves in the UK to revise Online Communications Guidance to provide a greater focus on engagement. Think the idea is to try and move from ‘Thou Shalt Not’ to ‘This is how you will engage’. I think it will be a long process and I’m not entirely convinced that a new set of guidance is the way to develop better engagement. Interesting to see how it all pans out.

Josh Folk

Indeed, great post. Right on. Perhaps government lacks engagement because of the time it can take to truly “engage”? It helps to focus time and energy engaging within the topics most important to your stakeholders. A simple survey or ideation tool can help with determine what those topics are.