How Can We Improve Citizen Engagement Initiatives? Here’s 5 Ways.

Citizen participation is at the foundation of democratic values, and is a fascinating area of study. When citizen participation programs are implemented effectively, more citizens are brought into the decision making process, and allows government to be more responsive to community needs. Additionally, citizen engagement initiatives have the ability to build community, grow leaders, and introduce a more collaborative style of government.

Yet, citizen engagement programs can have a dark side, leading to gridlock, lack of consensus, abuses to power, manipulation of facts, or the politicalization of issues. In many instances, efforts to improve citizen engagement can actually lead to further disillusion, increased empathy, and highlight serious resource deficiencies within the community. Below are a few ideas on how to make citizen participation work:

Provide a Platform for Innovation and Engagement – Make it Easy

Platforms like data.gov offer the chance for citizens to actively engage and create meaningful applications for broad distribution. For citizens looking to become more engaged in their community, they should be empowered and engagement should be easy for them. Citizens should be able to quickly retrieve data, instantly submit forms, and quickly find information they need.

Empower the Citizenry with Decision Making Power

Neighborhood groups, councils, and or community activists, need to have some type of authority and power in the decision making process. Without any authority or ownership of the issues, there will be challenges around implementation. Likely, these citizens are closest to issues, and can provide the best insights on how to allocate funds, understand cultural issues, and develop partnerships within the community.

Develop a Comprehensive Communications Strategy

In today’s world, it is so important for government agencies to realize there are dozens of different engagement channels for citizens. For citizen engagement to truly work, government needs to create a comprehensive communications strategy. This means the ability reach and broadcast to all citizens on a routine basis. This could include email, social media, advertisements, door to door, attending in person events, SMS, or hosting informational sessions.

Provide Incentives for Government Employees and Citizens

For citizen engagement to really work, there needs to be incentives for both citizens and government employees. Often, we focus on how do we incentive citizens to participate, but, government employees should be incentivized as well towards increased citizen engagement initiatives. There are tons of fascinating studies on what kinds of incentives work best for employees. Everything from spot bonuses, providing flex time, to awards and employee recognition. Ultimately, this is a decision that requires a manager to invest the time to focus on what will motivate their team, this could be a hybrid of options, and is also contingent on budgetary and legal restrictions on how government can incentivize employees.

Provide Sufficient Staffing, Resources, and Success Metrics

Clear goals, objectives and measurements must be identified to track citizen engagement initiatives. Also, there needs to be proper staffing and resources allocated to the initiative. Without this, apathy, disillusion, and decreased trust in government can occur, as citizens do not witness any tangible or positive impacts through their increased engagements. It’s also essential to retain a sense of fairness as to how resources are allocated across a city. Programs instituted in pockets or certain neighborhoods can be seen as discriminatory, paternalistic, and unfair.

Citizen engagement requires a very collaborative approach, balanced by setting clear guidelines, goals and outcomes for the community. No matter the mediums in which citizens engage with government, there will always be challenges of competing interests, conflicting strategies, and differing perspectives on what is right or best for a community. Above all, citizen engagement programs will always be challenged with sustainability. Although these challenges exist, technology is moving at such a rapid pace government will continue to become more collaborative, and rely on technology to deliver new mediums of citizen engagement.

What do you think? What are some steps to improve citizen engagement initiatives?

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Mark Forman

I find these insights particularly relevant for local government and at the heart of why the federal government is becoming disfunctional for taking care of citizen needs. Local governments are at the forefront of listening to their customers. At the federal level, funding and policy decisions are increasingly made on political positioning. Even so, the dominant service delivery framework leverages federalism, with the federal government providing money and information to state and local government. In areas where the federal government is increasing its direct citizen service delivery, there seems to be a lack of accountability (with ther recent revelation that the unimplemented IG findings have grown from 10,000 to over 16,000). In addition, Washington seems unable to make budget choices based on factual results and we get a share in pain sequester instead. The citizens aren’t stupid, and most chats that I have seen beleive federal agency blogs and data.gov are attempts to manipulate the public with filtered information rather than be accoutable for results; in their eyes the sequester scare tactics proved that you cannot trust what Washington tells you.

Also, doesn’t leadership have a role in determining the success of engagement, since you can’t have customer service if the leadership doesn’t make decisions based on customer needs and organization performance capability; hence, the five steps cannot work at the federal level if the legislators continue to choose politics and pork over factual results. Even within agencies, can responsiveness matter if leaders choose to balance internal bureaucratic politics in a manner that reduces employee angst rather than aligning results with customer needs.

So, clearly we are at a time when we may need a new concept of Federalism and where engaging the public means honesty in accountability for costs and results.

Royce Jones

We need to move beyond access to data/information (first point) if citizens are to have decision making power (second point). While it is a great start to provide citizens access to the same data that government uses, they also need access to the same analytical tools that government uses. Even if citizens don’t have decision making power, they have the power to submit testimony, and that power is greatly enhanced if they can present analysis comparable to that provided by government agencies.

Case in point, political redistricting in Hawaii. The State Commission provided public access to the same data and online application as was used by the Commission. There was great interest, more than 500 accounts were created. Some residents submitted complete plans directly to the Commission. Some residents created maps and plans that to support their testimony during public hearings. My sense was that testimony supported by analysis carried much more weight than testimony without and that the Commission did change it’s plan based on that testimony.

While not all government decision making is based on data and analysis, when it is, providing citizens access to the same data and tools results in a better informed and more engaged citizenry.

Joseph Dennis Kelly

Excellent content. These are the main issues that every organization needs to address. One point I would add to your fifth idea is that in addition to allocating the right people to the project, the organization needs to provide these people with the time to work on the effort. Meaning, they must be released from their regular activities, which should be divided among and shifted to others during the effort’s life-cycle.

Chris Stinson

Too offen, in local government having a Comprehensive Communications Strategy translates into one area of government controlling how another area uses social media for citizen engagement.

Will Hampton

Your second point is really off base. We elect representatives to make decisions, particularly when it comes to spending money. Citizens and staff are there to provide advice. That’s a point that staff too often fails to hammer home when engaging citizens. Have a comprehensive strategy is excellent advice, as is providing sufficient resources. But providing incentives to citizens and employees? You’re kidding, right? As a local government employee, I already get paid to do this stuff — which I happen to enjoy and find extremely fulfilling. If you’ve got to reward citizens to care enough about your project to get involved, then I say you’ve working on the wrong project or it really doesn’t require citizen engagement.

Joseph Dennis Kelly

Will, giving benefits to citizens begins with clearly outlining how they benefit from engaging. There are hard and soft benefits, for all participants, regardless of the project type.

There’s an excellent Webcast going right now. It’s at the World Bank and it’s on how public sector agencies and NGOs can better engage citizens using social media, particularly on how governments can leverage technology to increase connectivity and proactively respond to citizen inquiries. Here’s the link: http://live.worldbank.org/citizen-voices-conference-webcast-and-live-blog

One of the concerns that the Webcast is addressed hits on the one you identified. It’s important to remember that anything can be incentivized, Accomplishing this begins with defining the incentives that will engage your community, which means knowing their pain points and how your organization can address and resolve those points through online engagement.

Will Hampton

Joseph, thanks for the tip on the webcast. The author didn’t really address citizen incentives. Agreed that project managers need to let folks know up front why we are seeking their input. I find the need to “incentivize” employees to do their freaking jobs really offensive. We are public servants — properly engaging citizens should be at the heart of what we do.

Andrew Krzmarzick

Hi Will – We met a couple years ago at a TAMIO event. I’m wondering if the point about incentivizing employees is less about making them like their job and more about getting them to come up with innovative approaches to engaging citizens – more akin to a contest than a compensation bonus. In that case, incentives might be a great way to help people think out of the box…if only an award or a Starbucks gift card.

Dennis Boyer

These are some good suggestions on the basics. When it comes to more complex deliberative settings, then process and planning really start to matter too. I’ve seen “forums” and “listening sessions” blow up in recent years where the engagement initiatives were inauthentic, poorly conceived, and poorly executed. Citizens can really get pissed off if they sense that “engagement” is part of a public relations strategy, a cover for already made decisions, or some form of bait and switch. One lesson that needs to sink in: the skills to lead a productive intra-agency meeting may not be the same skills to conduct citizen engagement work.

Jill Finlayson

Hi Pat,

Your point about: “there needs to be proper staffing and resources allocated to the initiative. Without this, apathy, disillusion, and decreased trust in government can occur, as citizens do not witness any tangible or positive impacts through their increased engagements.” was echoed in a recent conversation on Striking Poverty:

“Bad citizen engagement is worse than no citizen engagement at all, as it reduces trust.” Ed Andersson, Deputy Director at Involve, @ed_andersson http://ow.ly/iPzhx

Ed is one of three experts talking about methods and measurement for successful citizen engagement and participatory decision making. Also participating is Joanne Caddy, OECD, and Vera Schattan Coelho, CEBRAP. The conversation is being hosted by Tiago Peixoto (@participatory) from the World Bank.

I encourage you and those joining this conversation, Dennis Boyer, Andrew Krzmarzick, Will Hampton, Joseph Dennis Kelly, Chris Stinson, Joseph Dennis Kelly, Royce Jones, Mark Forman to take a look at the fascinating global perspective being presented at https://strikingpoverty.worldbank.org/c130311



Mark Forman

Jill, thanks for hooking us up with this fascinating discussion. It does appear like all good techno fads, there are people who are trying to prove that the fad has value beyond hype and there are people who are trying to understand how the technology transforms government. The techno fad folks seem to all be in love with the idea, but have no clue (and rare interest) in how a new channel affects the organization design of government. They seem to be having a conversation with themselves.

It is my experience that citizens are loosing trust of the principal-agent model that underlies government and are adopting new governance approaches that circumvent the government worker as their agent. In the US, we see this around a broad range of topics ranging from gun control (after 9/11 people increasingly think government cannot protect them, and gun sales have set annual records for several years) to restaurant regulations (Twitter, Yelp, and others are much faster and more effective ways of letting people know where there is cleaniness or other problem vs. months or over a year for an inspector to show up after a citizen files a complaint).

My experience is that such items such as engagement have to reduce cycle time or error rates of government to be effective…very simple to measure: for example, we should spend a week asking welfare recipients what they need, rather than hiring a bunch of professors and consultants to conduct an 18 month longitudinal study. The study may have more errors or may not have bias created by the self-interest of the interviewee, but the interview can be done fast and cheap and may have 90% as good insights.

But, as many of the worldbank commentors alluded to, the issue for citizen engagement involves the question whether citizens still need the government to work in the principal-agent design of last century. If the citizen’s know what is best, than what is the role of the government worker in determining the best policy or operating model for a program. Is the role of the government worker to operationalize the desires of the citizen? If so, what is the role of the legislature as the agent for the people? Somewhere in the process, the principal-agent model breaks down, won’t it? In addition, what leadership structure do we need so that a government worker can conduct outreach that undermines the role of another agent (e.g. member of Congress)?

Greg Ranstrom

Engagement also occurs overtime in the context of community. If engagement is considered in the context of just a single decision or issue, a huge opportunity is missed to deepen connections, respect and understanding between and among electeds, staff and citizens. Every community decision is an opportunity to forge better (or worse) relationships–and to make subsequent decisions go better.

Other thoughts on this topic in our book (Kindle version free on the 5th of every month).

Larry King

Making Community Engagement Productive

DEBLAR & Associates has been successful in community engagement because we recognize that one shoe doesn’t fit all communities. Whether there exists established CBOs or an amalgam of stakeholders, when faced with environmental, education, or transportation challenges the issue of lack of capacity needs to be understood and strategies created that are consistent with local custom and culture.

Communities in stress often lack adequate organizational, administrative, and technical skill to design and implement remedies and we have found that listening and guiding members of the community to identify and prioritize issues and solutions in ways that make sense to them, empowers them rather than having solutions come from the outside..

All five of the suggested pathways can lead to consensus, but the trick is selecting the set of remedies and approaches to participatory research that will produce the most desirable outcomes. Tailoring the intervention and communication techniques to the group’s unique dynamics is a must. We have seen this work when engaging communities potentially at risk from hazardous substances or when struggling with redevelopment direction.

Here is the link to one of our studies for Ohio EPA that embodied these lessons.


Joe Sanchez

Want citizen engagement to work? Provide feedback and recognition on the difference-making outcomes that result from engagement. Stats like “# of ideas submitted” and even “dollars saved” are meaningless if the right story cannot be communicated that shows how these ideas are making a difference in the lives of our citizens.

Kim Truong

A nonprofit, Governance International, offers a number of case studies of successful citizen engagement initiatives: http://www.govint.org/good-practice/case-studies/

The narrative of Participatory Budgeting in Recife, Brazil is a telling example to Joe’s and Greg’s comments on the importance of outcomes as well as effects on community over time. Of course, local circumstances are key to program design.


I found this blog post fascinating. I work in the area of analytics and the big challenge that I am trying to understand is how can government agencies find the balance between being considered “Big Brother” while their actual objective is nothing but proactive citizen engagement.