Skip to main content

Want to be a hit with citizens? Avoid these engagement misses

Submitted by scc staff on August 23, 2016

It’s no secret that citizen engagement plays a critical role in the success of smart cities initiatives, which is why we are doing a three-part series to help you be more effective. In the first part, we covered best practices. In this part, we’re diving deeper into engagement failures.

As you’ll read below, engagement attempts fail when they are superficial. You build engagement by talking to people about issues that truly matter, by listening to what they have to say and by following up. — Jesse Berst

A lot can go wrong when cities decide to encourage citizen involvement.  Citizen engagement initiatives that backfire and cause more frustration than they deliver assistance are common in a complex system like government.  Here are some examples of what can go wrong.

• After a highly touted roll out of the new “Mayoral Call Center” CRM system, the city of Boston lost thousands of citizen generated reports during the height of a record heavy snow storm.

• The website, like many such websites, invites citizens to submit their wishes for their city with no evidence that anyone in any of the city governments will read the submissions.

• "RRS Boaty McBoatface" was the people's choice to name a $300 million state-of-the-art polar research ship.  The British government’s Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) opened name selection to the public, in an effort to involve citizens. Less than a week later the government publicly torpedoed the citizens’ choice.

• One time projects with a too narrow focus can frustrate the longer term citizen engagement efforts.  In the Bloomberg “Mayoral Challenge Grants” narrowing the focus of the project dramatically reduced the likelihood of large scale citizen engagement in the community, according to The Bloomberg Report on Innovation in European Cities.  Most citizen engagement ideas submitted for the “Mayoral Challenge Grants” focused specifically on how to galvanize citizens to take responsibility for projects normally in the domain of local government. These ideas tended to be localized efforts to beautify the area, improve community safety or support local voices. Each project started by limiting the opportunity for citizen involvement in broader governmental issues.  Instead of giving the whole community tools to access and influence government, the proposals focused on a specific location to beautify or a service, like community safety, to improve.     

Despite the idealism of public policy makers, NGOs, foundations and local officials, it is hard to engage citizens in a meaningful way in the broad financial and operations decisions made by city officials.  The benefits can be great for a city when the citizen engagement initiatives are successful.  A city hits that trifecta of 1) Satisfied Citizens, 2) Healthy Economy and 3) Growing Revenue.

What Goes Wrong In Citizen Engagement Initiatives?

From the Citizen Perspective:
No Feedback:  When citizens see opportunities for empowerment that yield no tangible results, their general distrust of government will increase.  Citizens may send information forward to a city agency. Or they may believe that a city agency is using passive data to collect information on their patterns of use and need for services.  But if the citizens cannot see a direct payoff for how this information is used and how its use will result in direct benefits to them, the citizens will be frustrated.  The benefit to the citizen user must be clear. 

Different Traditions of Citizen Participation:  Where ideas of local democracy, urban governance and involvement can be understood differently, opportunities for citizen participation can be misunderstood at both the governance and citizen levels.   In countries emerging from a more authoritarian governmental structure, the expectation may be high for government to act independent of citizen input.  In countries where democracy and even citizen revolt has a stronger history, citizens may expect that once their wishes are made known, the government will act to implement those wishes.  The process for how the benefits from citizen participation will be achieved must be transparent.

Uses for Software are Too Narrow:  A cleverly designed software application with great graphics is not enough to retain citizen engagement if it only has a narrow focus.  If citizens want to engage with the city, they want an app or a platform that will engage with a broad range of services offered by the city, not just one service like potholes or trash or zoning.  The citizen participation software application is competing with hundreds of other applications for “screen share”, the real estate on the screen of a typical mobile phone.  That citizen engagement tool must earn its real estate space on that phone by being a useful platform to services or portal for transacting municipal business.

From the Governmental Perspective:
Return on Investment:  When setting up and running a citizen participation project costs more in staff time, requires more dedicated attention and yields little useable data, the city will soon grow tired of the unbalanced investment and stop the project.  Worse.  The city will let the project languish without support.

Unmanaged Expectations:  A project that runs the risk of angering its citizens, by lack of governmental follow through when the citizens do engage, has not managed expectations well.  The governmental agency risks a bad reputation.

Conflict with Elected Officials:  City officials that are successful in cultivating a direct relationship with citizens on the topics of how to shape the city’s future, distribute its resources and invest in new assets and services are doing well.  But they run the risk of a backlash from elected officials who may feel it is their prerogative to make such decisions. 

Avoid the Pitfall of “Citizen Engagement Fatigue”
If you read the first article in this series, you’ve already started assessing the character and history of your own community, alerting senior municipal managers of the benefits of citizen engagement and organizing a citizen engagement/ social media policy writing committee.  Hit the “pause” button.  

Here’s a checklist to post before you proceed.   Keep your initial foray into citizen engagement:

1. Modestly within your capacity to manage,

2. Sufficiently beguiling to citizens, and

3. Highly likely to enhance efficiency and productivity in government

Smart Cities Readiness Guide …
Check out the Smart People chapter of the Council’s Smart Cities Readiness Guide for innovative approaches to encourage broad participation in city decisions. Smart cities encourage all city stakeholders to develop a vision for the city they want to live in.