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Public sector digest


JUNE 2013
www. publ i csect ordi gest . com

Taking Civic Engagement Online

Corporate Strategy



Civic engagement has many elements, but in its most basic sense, it fosters the right of the people or
the citizenry to directly participate in the decision-making process of the institutions that represent
and affect them. In theory, by actively listening to its citizenry, government can become closer and
more responsive to its constituents needs and priorities, which makes for better informed decisions
and results in more representative outcomes. In action, increasing and enhancing opportunities for
participation in policy-making and projects allows government to harness the collective expertise and
services of their community.
Over the past year, Ive consulted with hundreds of government employees in United States and Canada seeking to build broader and
more constructive engagement between government agencies and their communities. The bulk of these conversations have been
centered on how governments are currently engaging their citizens and what they hope to achieve moving forward. The context ranges
widely: from the city councillors wanting to better listen to the pulse of their constituents, to the municipal clerk trying to find a better
way to manage public feedback, to the urban planner looking to aggregate and quantify input, to the legislator seeking to gauge public
sentiment on pending legislation, to the public works director seeking ideas on infrastructure repair projects. The list goes on and on.

However, despite the wide range of application, it has become evident that civic engagement efforts tend to be very similar and the
grievances associated with these methods to be common. The most salient observation has been that local government can connect and
create meaningful dialog with their communities far better with the newer channels of digital interaction than through the traditional
methods of the past century. In his book, Citizenville, Lieutenant Governor of California and former mayor of San Francisco, Gavin
Newsom poses the following question:

Why is it that people are more engaged than ever with each other through Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook, text messaging but less
engaged with their government? Millions of Americans find hours every day to tweet, text, blog, post reviews, and play games with each
other on social networking sites. Yet, in 2011 when our second-largest city, Los Angeles, held an election on crucial initiatives dealing with
education and the environment, only 12 percent of registered voters found time to cast a ballot. And the low turnout was so
unremarkable, so par for the course, that hardly anyone even noticed or commented on it.

The disconnect Newsom refers to does not necessarily stem from any lack of desire or motivation on the part of government or its
citizenry. On the contrary, civic engagement initiatives are front and center among local governments in the United States and
especially in Canada. Similarly, given the growing participation in local news sites, such as affiliates or city-wide hackathons,
it seems most citizens would willingly contribute if given the opportunity, but they just dont know how. Arguably, this widespread
disconnect with government is rooted in the engagement process itself.

Despite rich diversity of application and context, civic engagement processes typically manifest in similarly antiquated forms: mandated
public meetings, town halls, phone, email, letters, city-wide surveys, and dusty comment boxes. These traditional methods are almost
universally recognized as difficult and inconvenient to understand and access for the average citizen, unproductive, time-consuming,
and expensive for staff to manage. Phone calls, emails, and letters are difficult to manage or track and often are left unaccountable.
Open houses, city-wide surveys, and in-person interviews can be incredibly expensive and time-consuming to conduct. Public meetings
typically have low attendance and tend to attract special interest groups or a very particular sampling of the communitylovingly
referred to as the usual suspects. Without marketing efforts, accountability, and clear objectives for engagement, public meetings
become hijacked by a few voices and invariably become personal venting outlets rather than a communal brainstorming engine. These
traditional forms of engagement are too limited, inconvenient, and are becoming less relevant to an increasingly mobile and hyper-
connected citizenry.

If the desire to improve civic engagement processes is truly genuine, government-citizen
interaction needs to reflect these developments by embracing new arenas of engagement
online. Hosted platforms offer a variety of benefits and should be prioritized when
considering a civic engagement roadmap.

The benefits and potential of online interactivity is real and timely, and governments that are not leveraging this technology to
collaborate with citizens are missing out on a wealth of opportunity. In order to harness the full potential of their communities,
governments must shift their perspective of civic engagement as a mandated obligation and begin to view their citizenry as a resource to
be engaged on their own terms, namely, online.

In order to successfully tap the full potential of the community, governments need to connect with citizens on their own terms and
empower them to contribute. Citizens are online and mobile, so government should be too. Like it or not, online is the way of the future
and quickly becoming the preferred way of communication and collaboration.
Citizens are busy, mobile, and plugged in. If the desire to
improve civic engagement processes is truly genuine, government-citizen interaction needs to reflect these developments by embracing
new arenas of engagement online. Hosted platforms offer a variety of benefits and should be prioritized when considering a civic
engagement roadmap. Having one centrally located hub to host ongoing virtual engagement practices is the most productive way to
scale and manage online civic engagement. If executed properly, hosting an online civic engagement portal will offer tangible benefits in
community improvement.
There are, however, critical considerations to take into account in order for efforts to be fruitful. Here is a

There is a reason why most citizens have never participated in a public meeting: it is inconvenient and boring to the average citizen.
Many governments have developed citizen academies to fill this void, educating people on how to be a good citizen. It should be the
other way around: in order to harness the power of the broader community, government must learn to engage with citizens on their own

Inform in a simple and digestible manner.
Don't overcomplicate in an attempt to get better informed input. Government rules and jargon are incomprehensible and unappealing
to the average busy citizen. Be concise and visual with your messaging. There are a variety of mediums that can be utilized to resonate
with different viewers: include images, video, and interactive mediums.

Convenience should be two-fold: not just for the community, but for the staff.
Online engagement platforms should be constructed with staff time in mind, automating and citizen-sourcing duties as much as
possible. Citizen-sourcing is a valuable way to relieve pressure on overworked and underfunded government employees. Ideally, citizens
would be able to create, prioritize, and monitor content themselves, requiring minimal public resources.

In the citizen-sourcing model,
for example, governments pose a question or invite ideas for community improvement public feedback and ideas silently grow in the
background as a self-monitored and sorted creature. Staff review, respond to, and harvest the top 10-15 percent of civic ideas submitted
and voted up by other citizens in a fraction of time otherwise spent monitoring, prioritizing, routing, quantifying, and responding to
citizen feedback through traditional methods of phone, email, or public meetings.

Stay on target.
When framing any discussion or form of interaction online, it is important to maintain a goals-oriented approach. Ask yourself, what
are you trying to achieve? Be clear with your engagement objectives. Publish a use policy that clearly communicates the purpose,
procedure, and rules for facilitating online citizen participation.

Choose your tools wisely.
Match objectives with process choose tools that underscore and support your objectives. For example, focused discussion groups,
forums, or surveys can be used for input on specific projects and initiatives, whereas crowdsourcing can help prioritize ideas or issues.

Keep it productive.
Frame the conversation in a way that encourages behavior aimed at resolving problems of the community. Disclaimers, public use
policies, and terms and conditions can all be used to set expectations with the public, such as what content is considered inappropriate.

Profanity filters and community flagging (similar to that used in craigslist) can also help monitor inappropriate content without
straining staff time. However, contrary to popular belief among government workers, public feedback on these platforms tends to be
When individuals feel genuinely involved in a decision making process, there is a sense of shared responsibility towards
finding a solution instead of pointing fingers.

Be responsive.
To a citizen spending time and effort on improving their community, submitting comments online to a static feedback form is similar to
putting a piece of paper into a dusty comment box at city hall neither offer the reward of accountability. Without any way of seeing the
status of input, citizens perceive that their input is not valued or recognized, and they may as well be casting their effort and time into a
black hole. Just as 311 services often give citizens a case number to track their request, online public forums need to similarly give
citizens visibility into the status of their ideas has it been acknowledged, is it pending, is it under review? It is rewarding for citizens to
see these status updates because it legitimizes the process for them, lets them know their government is actively listening, and provides
real opportunity for positive social change.

Measure results.
Deeper insight and understanding of public feedback makes for better informed decisions. Having an easy way to sort through, analyze,
and interpret public input is therefore paramount to any online engagement effort. The benefit of conducting civic engagement online is
that all digital interaction by its very nature is measurable. There is a variety of powerful analytical tools and creative ways to simplify
and quantify feedback.

These tools should be explored and utilized to help underline and measure your engagement goals. We
recommend having minimal sign in requirements in order to maximize participation. However, as discussions become more focused
and sign in questions more extensive, additional information can be sourced and analyzed.

If you use it, they will come.
If you build it they will come is not applicable here. Your tools are only as good as your outreach efforts, and it is the governments
responsibility to make sure these efforts are ongoing, creative, and consistent with other channels of engagement.

Be inclusive.
Include as many voices as possible. Integrate with other processes and marketing efforts. Connect the platform with existing structures
of engagement, and promote it to local organizations with similar mission statements non-profits, citizen coalitions, neighborhood
committees, schools, etc. You can also citizen-source marketing efforts by including social media share buttons, or RSS feed updates.

Make it last.
Existing online feedback structures are often unaccountable or superficial, such as attempts by elected officials to engage with
constituents online during campaign time which are then taken offline once they are in office. Political campaigns and city projects
come and go, but engagement efforts should be ongoing. Civic engagement efforts both on and offline draw their legitimacy from
being ongoing, consistent, and productive. Providing a central hub to host all different forms of virtual engagement is useful in
generating ongoing public feedback in a timely and productive manner.

Since earning her bachelor degrees in International Relations and French from Tulane University in 2010, JENNIFER WHIDDON has enjoyed being part of the Granicus
family as an Enterprise Account Development Representative. She is passionate about helping government agencies realize the value of becoming more transparent,
efficient, and collaborative with their communities. For more information about Granicus visit

ALEXANDRIA MARUSKA has over 12 years of experience in sales and business development, with a focus on developing and implementing enterprise software solutions
and providing strategic consulting for Higher Education and K-12. She has worked with a variety of educational institutions, government agencies, and technology companies,
including early-stage start-ups and growth companies, and is dedicated to helping them achieve their goals while building long-term business relationships. She holds several
different roles at Granicus from new client acquisition, account management, and strategic planning.

Newsom, Gavin. Citizenville: How to Take the Town Square Digital and Reinvent Government. 2013
According to the European Travel Commission, today 47% of Canadians report using a smartphone, up from 34% in 2012. Neilsons Social Media
Report 2012; time spent on PCs and smartphones went up 21 percent from July 2011 to July 2012.
For example, the City of Austins award-winning, SpeakUpAustin site has attracted over 1,100 citizens, generated over 500 civic ideas, over 50 have
been put into action, and over 18 ideas have been fully implemented by the City.
For a free to download Compliance Toolkit which addresses how to stay compliant and productive in social media engagement check out:
We have very few items that are flagged or removed. The City of Austins SpeakupAustin site, for example, has had only 6 items flagged out of 1,000
plus items published. Out of 50 plus other clients utilizing the Granicus Civicideas platform, only a couple of users have been removed from the site, one
of which was invited back to participate on the site after given the terms and conditions, and has been actively participating in productive dialogue on the
site since.