Social Media and Citizen Engagement: Always the Same Old Folks?

If you’ve ever belonged to an organization that relies on volunteers, you know one thing to be true:

It’s always the same handful of folks who show up to pitch in and provide the energy to power your programs.

So I’m wondering: does this phenomena ring true for web- and mobile-based citizen engagement activities?

After all, the citizens we’re trying to attract and entice into engaging with us on our Facebook pages, crowd-sourcing platforms and app contests are all essentially participating as volunteers.

And I’ve got to believe that you see many of the same people commenting on your blogs or posting Flickr photos week after week and month after month.

Now let’s take this a step further – if you’re in a town or city, I’d also venture to guess that the same citizens who get involved with activities and programs in person are precisely the people that you’re seeing online. They’re committed to community improvement and will be “there” to provide their input and insight wherever you set up tent to talk with them.

Of course, all of these thoughts beg one big question:

Are we really reaching new citizens by using social media and mobile technology or is it the same old folks who now have a new way to give feedback?

Are we okay with that…or should technology be enabling access for folks who aren’t at the table already?


By the way, I am moderating a panel at Foresee’s Digital Citizen Satisfaction Summit next Thursday, May 12 in Washington, DC where I’ll be sharing these kinds of questions and your responses with key thought leaders, including:

  • Gwynne Kostin, Director Mobile, GSA Office of Citizen Services & Innovative Technologies
  • Sarah Hyder, Disaster Management Program Manager, FEMA Office of Public Affairs / Office of External Affairs
  • Aaron Smith, Pew Research Center, Senior Research Specialist, Pew Internet and American Life Project

I hope you’ll be able to join us next week. In the meantime, your thoughts here will drive our real-time conversation at the event – so thanks in advance for your participation.

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Alvin Butler

Government seems to lag way behind new technology, mainly because of the added work or changes it may mean to their jobs. There is a missed opportunity, not just to reach citizens, but to also reduce the cost of day-to-day operations during a time of sever budget cuts. Government can do more with less if those that have the know how could hire lobbiest. Case in point: text messaging has shown to reduce the cost of answering phones but 83%! http://www.text2them.com In addition, provide improved citizen communication, emergency communication and access during disasters. However government continues to think all it is good for is emergency alert broadcast systems instead of two-way communiction systems.

Next Generation 911 (NG911) is planning to use two-way texting in their next phase but while the technology is available today, they plan on implimenting it over 10 years!

Sue Pridemore

Trying to pull my agency, National Park Service, into true Civic Engagement is something I’ve been working on for over 30 years. It is beginning to take place because my generation is finally retiring. I’m hanging around because I am finally working with people who are risk takers, willing to push for win-win rather than chain of command and seriously want to hear a variety of points of view. I’ve always said that if everyone in the room is all nodding in unison, the wrong people are in the room. Even as we plan for the 21st century (wait, aren’t we already in the 21st century?), the same old thinkers are the people doing that planning. How do you suppose that will come out!

Benjamin Rebach

I don’t believe this is a phenomenon limited to government; I believe the is common to most social engagements, online or off – including GovLoop.

However, I do believe the active individuals are a benefit to any effort, and especially so when government social media is in its nascent stages. These individuals provide the core conversation that new users experience when they discover government social media channels, ensuring that potential users don’t simply discover ’empty space.’

Developing a new social media channel is a fine balance of enabling and sustaining the core group while working to encourage new users. Fortunately, the core group is usually self-engaged enough to allow – and support – focus on the new users. But, this does not mean they can be neglected.

I recommend encouraging the more benevolent of the core group, while treating the more problematic members as opportunities to demonstrate the benefits of social media as a conflict resolution and mediation tool. If handled well, this core group should develop into a healthy and thriving community.

Jerry Dale Stubben

Read Blood Quantum get it at Authorhouse, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Nook, Kindle, google bloodquantumbook.com and learn how government will soon be a thing of the past and all will participate in all decisions of their tribes…aho

David Kuehn

I agree that new tools do not expand the public capacity to influence or make collective decisions. Nor do new tools necessarily attact groups that have been disengaged historically. But new tools provide an opportunity to redesign participation processes and allow more and new people to assert self-determination.

In addition to more engagement, it is necessary to apply or develop new tools that would improve the environment for discussing differences in values, assumptions, needs, and interests. Many public issues are complex involving multiple parties with limited incentive and few mechanisms to assist in civil compromise, consensus, or mutual acknolwedgement of differences. Perhaps reducing barriers through new technology could lower the cost of participating in deliberation.

Scott Primeau

For as long as our government has been around this situation has probably been true. Many of the same people participate over and over and many others sit on the sideline until something bothers them enough to participate.

Developing new (online) methods of participation may only attract some of the people who already engage, but online methods also give opportunities to people who haven’t previously been able to engage because of time and location obstacles.

Online methods of engagement should complement other forms of written and in person interaction. No single solution is good for every situation.

Government has a responsibility to open opportunities for participation and citizens have a responsibility to participate. As government becomes more responsive to citizens, maybe more people will get off the sidelines and engage.

Dave Nash

I can happily report that the City of Yuma’s biggest in-person participants are not the ones we’re hearing from through social media. (“Happily” because we know all too well already where these few individuals are coming from.) While we are still in soft-launch/make-mistakes phase with Twitter and Facebook, we can say that our followers and “likers’ (is that the right term?) are not the same names that turn up on comment cards filled out at our public meetings.

When we make the transition from talking “at” our followers – we currently use Twitter and Facebook to send out information such as what’s on our news releases – to a more pure form of interaction, I’ll be interested to see if that remains the case.

Jay Johnson

Classic example of the Pareto Principle. In this case you’ll tend to see 20% of the volunteers providing 80% of the help. This doesn’t provide a solution to the involvement issue, but it does provide prespective that this is a common problem take many others are facing as well.

Sarah Giles

In our research, we’ve heard both – that using digital tools does bring in those who haven’t previously been engaged and that it doesn’t. Obviously, given my organization’s mission (to help build the capacity for collaborative decision making), this is a question we’re incredibly interested in – for both in-person engagement and digital engagement. A digital tool won’t solve the problem of engaging more people or a wider representation of people if it’s still part of a process that hasn’t been designed to do that. If you’re still doing outreach about using the tool in the same way you’ve always done outreach, you’re going to get the same people using the tool who also show up in person for a community forum, for example. We’ve seen over and over again that it comes down to the relationships that are built off-line for wider engagement.

I’m following what’s happening here in the Portland, OR metropolitan region, where our Metro Council has routinely used community forums (that have had poor attendance) and is not testing out Opt In, an online panel for thousands of County citizens to use in weighing in on what’s important to them / issues before Metro. It’s still new, but one reason it was developed was because Metro was frustrated by trying to engage with citizens. So it will be interesting to see if it has more success in doing that or how the two (they haven’t done away with the idea of “off-line” engagement) might support each other.

Another example is the King County Countywide Community Forums in Washington State. That system is probably one of the most developed / robust we’ve seen in combining on-line and off-line tools for collaborative decision-making. I’m not too sure how much empirical work has been done to look at who is participating and whether the on-line component helps broaden participation or not (if anyone does know, please share!).

And, agree with what both Scott and David had to say!

Doug Matthews

Andrew – Appreciate the perspective, but I have to disagree. As a City with a highly engaged public, we’ve seen our online engagement platform greatly diversify and democratize the participation process. One of the greatest benefits of the online platform is that it provides access to those who may not have the time to participate in-person, or may not have the stomach for standing in front of a group of potentially hostile neighbors to make their case.


I just also wanted to let you know about a program on Wednesday, May 18th at noon at the National Archives in Washington, DC that will explore three projects where citizen volunteers transcribe and geotag historical records. The program is called “Are You In? Citizen Archivists, Crowdsourcing, and Open Government.”

It will feature Ancestry.com’s World Archives Project, the New York Public Library’s “Map Warper Project” and the US Geological Survey’s “North American Bird Phenology Program.” These three projects engage citizens in microvolunteering and are innovative and very successful!

Christina Morrison

Agree with Doug’s comment below – it seems to me that plenty of people who don’t have the interest or time to participate in person would join and are joining online communities and participating in the discussions. I thought it was great to see that when workers here in D.C. thought they would have some time off due to the shutdown, there were many people who planned to use the time to volunteer. These folks may not normally have the time to volunteer or attend community events, but if given the opportunity and means of participating, they are excited to do so.