Designing citizen engagement success

What are some steps to achieving success in citizen engagement? Let’s break it down:


Design an engagement plan before you reach out to the public.

A common theme among the main challenges to citizen engagement success is lack of preparation in setting up the engagement process. The process can flow much better if you create a strategy before the process starts. Think about what sort of information you need to gather, what decisions you need to make, your goals for the engagement, who will be reviewing the feedback, and how the feedback needs to be formatted.

The engagement process should help participants feel like they are part of the process, but their participation should also be structured in a way that produces positive results for the city. In other words, you are gathering high quality feedback that is actionable and relevant to the decisions that you have to make in your project.

The process should also be structured in a way that ensures that even if thousands of citizens participate, you will still be able to quantify results and see clear themes and narratives that you can address in the project. You should be able to gather feedback that tells you what the public is concerned about, what they like about the proposal, what needs to be changed to address these concerns, what can be done to make the project more successful after it is implemented, and what will improve the likelihood that council will approve the proposal.

These are the types of questions that you need to consider before starting engagement, because these questions determine how you engage the public, what tools you use, what specific questions you are going to ask, and how the public will provide feedback.


One half of accessible participation is providing opportunities for engagement and the other is making it simple for the general public to interact with complex civic projects and give feedback. It does not serve the city government or the public to ask broad questions that citizens cannot respond to in a useful way. Questions like “What do you think about this project?” or “What are your ideas for this project?” are so broad that they invite responses that cover areas that are not really under consideration. When gathering feedback on the city budget, many cities make the mistake of asking citizens whether budgets for particular departments are too high or low without providing any context for what an increased budget would do for that department or whether the department is currently meeting its goals. Citizens who are particularly well informed might provide some good feedback, but will only account for a low percentage of respondents.

Instead of asking citizens what they think about a complex project in a broad way, ask them about the specific issue under consideration. There will be areas of the project that are pretty much already decided, and there will be areas to which public input would be immensely valuable. Ask about the elements of the projects that can be changed.

The public will appreciate that their feedback is going towards something that is actually going to happen, something that is under discussion, and is an issue that their feedback could help address. Citizens want to know that if they invest their time into participating in an engagement project, their feedback is going to be used for something positive.


Link your network to other networks

A major challenge to engagement outreach is informing citizens that there is a project happening that they may be interested in.

The first step here is scanning your network for people who may be interested, which includes reaching out to your email lists and social media followers. It can be very tough to get in front of new groups that have not interacted with the city yet, so these are people that are not currently followers on social media and have not given their email address or phone number.

The second step is expanding your network by reaching out to other groups that have their own networks, such as other city departments that engage the public, local businesses, and advocacy groups. Local businesses will have their own networks of customers on social media and via email newsletters that they may be willing to share news or important links to. Advocacy groups have their own members that they can reach out to. By reaching out to other networks, you can greatly expand your reach to include more and more people.   

Create opportunities for participation

The most common opportunity for public participation is through an in-person meeting, but as we covered in our challenges to citizen engagement, many people cannot attend these meetings since they are during working hours. So even if people did know about the meeting and wanted to attend, many people simply cannot make it and may want to at least hear what happened in the meeting or have a way to participate remotely.

Create a clear narrative for your project and why people should participate

When you share out information about your project to your networks and partner networks, it is important that you share a clear narrative about why your project is important and why people should participate. This goes back to our section on planning that states the importance of understanding what decisions you need to make in your project and why/how you need to reach out to the public to participate in these decisions. This thorough understanding of why and how you need the public to participate is key to sharing out to your networks, so that citizens can quickly grasp what is happening with the project and whether they feel they can contribute to these decisions.

Top challenges that prevent citizen engagement success

Our last installment helped us to define success in citizen engagement. Now, we want to learn what prevents success.

Let’s break down the engagement process into elements and analyze each of them individually:

Informing the public

Reaching out to citizens in the first place, so that they even know that a projects is going on.

Talking about complex civic issues in a complex way

One common mistake cities make in engagement is presenting information to citizens in the same way that they would to other government experts who have the background to understand it. Simplifying civic issues can be challenging, but is essential to successful engagement. It is unreasonable to expect citizens to give meaningful input on something as overwhelmingly complex as the city budget without providing them a way to understand the variables and tradeoffs involved. When confronted with a 100-plus page PDF of a proposal, citizens may misunderstand the situation and provide unhelpful feedback. In the worst case, citizens who feel they were not sufficiently informed may even convince Council to reject the proposal altogether.  

Consulting the public

Providing citizens enough of an opportunity to participate is a big challenge. In-person meetings are usually held during the week and during hours that most people are working, so it’s difficult to get people to attend. In-person meetings can end up having the same ten people show up again and again. Even if there is a good turnout to an in-person meeting, it’s hard to tell how many people wanted to participate but were unable to make it to the meeting.

Many governments try to solve this challenge by using online tools to engage their citizens, but there are pitfalls there as well. Facebook is a very popular tool that governments use to inform the public and also gather feedback on civic projects, but the comments sections of a Facebook post is a tough place to hold a civil conversation or gather actionable feedback. It’s easy for citizens to get in arguments with each other and get off topic very quickly. Facebook comments are not structured enough to get high quality feedback or guide citizens through complicated subjects. Although Facebook’s large user base makes it a good medium for informing the public or inviting people to another place to participate, it is not suited to consulting the public on complicated civic issues.

Survey Monkey is mostly used as a low cost and lightweight option to gather feedback online. The challenge with Survey Monkey is that it is formatted to ask basic questions and has a tough time dealing with the more complicated projects that city governments need feedback on.

IdeaMapr, our online engagement tool, was designed and developed by a collaboration between several municipalities as a tool that could structure engagement to get deeper feedback on more complicated decisions than tools like Survey Monkey or Facebook.

Reporting on Engagement Outcomes

Reporting on the outcomes of engagement and how to make sense of feedback is often not considered until feedback is already gathered. When a city gathers feedback first and then thinks about how they are going to make sense of it or report on it, they often find that they have structured the questions in the wrong way or asked the wrong questions entirely.

For example, they might have asked a question like, “How do you think we should improve this park?” This type of question is very difficult to report on because it produces hundreds of essay type comments with no real way to quantify the findings. This means that someone would have to read through each comment, manually compose some themes, and figure out a way to present these themes in an understandable way.

If the city wanted to quantify this type of question, they would need to structure the question into more of a multiple choice type question or a question with themes that could be created beforehand and presented as answer choices. For instance, they could ask the question “Which of these ideas would improve the park?” and have participants select from answers like “bike trails” or “volleyball courts”. Our IdeaMapr engagement tool allows participants to rank these options, add pros and cons, or show how much money they would allocate to each item when presented with the costs of bike trails and volleyball courts and an overall budget.

Closing the feedback loop

Closing the feedback loop is about updating citizens who participated in the engagement about the results of the project and the impact of their individual contribution. Unfortunately, the biggest challenge here is that many governments leave this part of the engagement process out almost entirely. They may post a couple of updates on their website, but forget to follow up with participants directly or on feedback platforms.

One transportation planner told me that their team meticulously tracks feedback in an excel spreadsheet so that they can make sure that all of the points brought up by the public are either addressed in changes to the project or in existing elements. Although they do all of this work to ensure that the public’s concerns are being addressed, they don’t share this information with the public or the citizens who participated. This means that a citizen who contributed to the project by bringing up an important issue that the city ends up acknowledging and addressing in a revised plan may never know that they made a difference in the project and helped to improve their city.

When it is time for the project to go to council, it would be useful to be able to reach out to citizens who participated in the project so that they could come to the meeting and show support. This is an important element to making sure that the project is successful.

Now that we’ve learned what defines successful engagement and what can stand in the way of success, our next installment will cover how to achieve success in citizen engagement.

Defining Success in Citizen Engagement

How do you define successful citizen engagement?

A director of planning once told me that his job was to implement projects that were going to improve his city. He invested in citizen engagement because if he didn’t win the trust of the public, people could complain about the process and derail the project at the last minute.


These derailments cost him untold staff time and expense because they forced him to restart projects from scratch. To prevent that, he needs to create a fair process where people are made aware of the issues and given an opportunity to participate before the project heads to council.




We can define success in terms of cost and also benefits.

For this planner, success in citizen engagement means insurance against costly delays.

Many other people in local government also use citizen engagement to gather local knowledge from residents that government staff and other experts may not possess. This local knowledge can help improve government services by making these services better fit the needs of the community. Here, success in citizen engagement means leveraging citizens as a resource for civic improvement.

Ideally, successful citizen engagement means that you are including the public in decisions that shape their communities and are doing this in a thorough way that builds trust and incorporates local knowledge.

So, how do you know when you are successful? More importantly, how do you know you are maximizing your success? Stay tuned for our next installment, which looks at the top challenges that prevent success in citizen engagement.