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.