Public consultation is an essential component of a well-functioning democracy. Governments at all levels (municipal, state, federal, etc.) should consult with residents and meaningful engagement can enhance citizen’s ability to affect public policy development and decision-making in their communities. But citizen engagement is commonly perceived as being “for show” – and often, justifiably so. A Pew Research Center study on trust and participation indicated that only 39% of Americans believe that elected officials and government cared about the opinions of citizens. When citizens are unable to see how their feedback has had an impact, it reinforces the notion that decisions are a foregone conclusion. People do not feel empowered to facilitate change in their communities or hold decision-makers accountable, resulting in widespread cynicism and declining public trust.
PlaceSpeak strives to build legitimacy in online democratic practices by connecting digital identity to physical location, protecting individual privacy, and closing the feedback loop between consultation and outcome. When people are able to see the tangible effects of their input on a project or issue, they are more likely to stay engaged and participate in the future. Here are three ways that governments can close the loop at all stages of the engagement process to support a culture of participation in their communities:
- Be honest about what is not up for discussion
Decision-makers need to be upfront and honest with citizens about what is open to public input. If the scope of participation is not well-defined, participants will have unrealistic expectations about the potential impact of their input, and become increasingly cynical and mistrust the process further. Say for example a growing population needs additional public transport infrastructure. The question of whether there should be additional infrastructure is not up for debate, but citizen feedback can still be incorporated in decisions about the type of infrastructure, potential routes for transit services, and so on. This should be made clear from the start.
- Eliminate the black box
In traditional models of public engagement feedback goes into a ‘black box,’ and mysteriously turns into policy decisions at the other end. This opaque proccess only serves to reinforce apathy and cynicism. A networked, citizen-centric model, which supports ongoing conversations between decision-makers and citizens and amongst citizens, is crucial to rebuilding trust. Start thinking about how your organization can facilitate and encourage bi-directional and multi-threaded dialogue on an ongoing basis. And frame your public engagement process as just that: a process. Make the project timeline clear from the start and outline the opportunities for participation available in each phase.For example, this could take the form of publicly responding to questions from participants throughout the process. During a particularly controversial consultation on reducing the number of kindergarten French Immersion entrants, the Surrey School District collected parents’ questions from the discussion boards and published three sets of FAQs to address common questions. As a result, Surrey Schools was able to demonstrate that they were actively hearing and responding to parents and families’ concerns throughout the engagement process.
- Connect the dots
At the end of the engagement process, it is critical to demonstrate how the final decision has been impacted by citizen input. For participants, knowing that their feedback has made an impact is critical to making engagement meaningful and habit-forming. This can come in many forms, such as: “What We Heard” reports, survey results, meeting minutes, graphs, infographics, videos, and more.Publishing these resources into a single centralized location (such as the project website) provides an easy way for citizens (including those who may not have participated) to track the entire process from initial engagement through to final report. In addition, be proactive about sharing these reports or documents with participants. For example, notify or email participants, promote the link on social media, or include it as part of a media release. Even if these reports have been posted on your website, people may not visit your website regularly or know that it has been published.At the end of the day, seeing is believing. By closing the feedback loop – not only at the end of the engagement process, but throughout – citizens are shown that their voices matter and are empowered to participate in their communities.
Mary Leong is the Communications Manager at PlaceSpeak, a location-based citizen engagement platform. Prior to joining PlaceSpeak, she has worked in the governmental, nonprofit, and higher education sectors. Recently, Mary completed her MSc in Politics and Communication at the London School of Economics, focusing on the impact of digital media on political polarization. She is interested in technologies which support dialogue and deliberation to bridge the growing gap between citizens.
Three Things Thursday is a weekly series highlighting 3 (easy) things that people can do in their day-to-day work lives to incorporate feedback and adapt based on it. Leading up to the Feedback Summit, we want to hear feasible feedback actions from across the Feedback Labs community. Have you incorporated feedback into your work? Do you have advice on how to adapt your work based on feedback? If you’d like to share your or your organization’s experiences on the blog please contact [email protected]