The Elephant in the Room: Why do Online Public Engagement -or any civic tech? (from Granicus)

This piece from Michael Ashford at Granicus is a little more high-level than I usually run at this site – I usually put less technical, more deep-thought work at EngagingCities – but I thought this piece was both very important, and perhaps gives some insight into the thinking behind one of the larger firms on the OPEE.  And it’s crucial stuff to be thinking about.  Read the whole thing here, but think hard about the real reasons why you’re doing online public engagement — or any of the other newfangled stuff.

In the final few pages of the book, Goldsmith and Crawford write: “Above all, we think it is important that these new developments be understood as tools, not as ends in themselves. … We must not embrace the use of digital tools for its own sake.”

Finally, someone had addressed the elephant in the room.

For all the upward movement in the civic technology space – the Knight Foundation reports that from 2008 to 2012 the civic tech field grew at an annual rate of 23 percent – many of these companies have struggled to gain a foothold.

Many chalk it up to government’s unwillingness to change, or its workers’ aversion to technology, or the complex intricacies of the procurement process.

But are those the real reasons?

If you take a holistic look at the civic tech space, much of the emphasis is about putting enough pressure on government to bend to the public’s demand for technology, focusing so much on changing the citizen experience first, with little forethought given to how internal government process will need to change or adapt to support a new technology.

Too often, governments adopt technology to appease pressure rather than with an open-armed embrace. Thus, much of the civic tech space is ignored, seen as  “nice-to-have” or as a checkbox on a list – as ends, rather than tools, as Goldsmith and Crawford warn against.


3 Best Practices for Text-Based Civic Engagement (from Textizen)

Textizen continues to be a particularly interesting online public engagement tool because it’s the only one that relies on SMS (texting) technology — which  means that it’s accessible to both smart phone and non-smart phone users, and thus accesible to a much wider population than a platform that only works on a computer or a tablet or a smart phone.  That’s crucial in working with many populations, including the economically disadvantaged.

This post from Textizen is not new, but it’s a great summary of both good practices for engagement design and the unique specifics of civic engagement through texting.  A great read.


1. Start Backwards: Define Your Goal
When kicking off a campaign, start with the ultimate goal and work backwards.

Are you focused on gauging the impact of near-term local development projects, or long-term master plan adoption? Preparing for school budget cuts, or trying to raise participation in programs? Or are you most interested in collecting demographics to better understand a particular audience?

What types of data, information, or engagement would be most useful for influencing decision-makers?

Examples: ranking of service preferences, support or opposition for a proposal, broad generation of ideas, contact information to bring people to in-person events.

Once your goals are clear, and you’ve identified the types of data you’ll need, all that’s left is getting people hooked and asking a few followup questions.

2. Get Participants Hooked with the Right Opening Question
The first question plays a huge role in the success of your survey. Once people text in to your campaign, completion rates are usually quite high: 90% for 3-question surveys, and 50-70% for 5-8 question surveys. But only if the first question is compelling!

Here are a few ideas for how to get people’s attention:

  • Get people interested or emotional: take advantage of both topic and phrasing. Topics such as a new minimum wage or proposed rapid transit line may have broad appeal.
  • Using imaginitive language, making it clear that respondents can truly make an impact, and presenting visually descriptive options will further encourage people to respond.
  • Start with a simple question. Make it as easy as possible for people to get started. A yes/no or multiple choice question makes it faster for people to respond. You can ask for more detail in follow-up questions.

Example Questions:

  • Does this [picture] look like a good idea? Text Yes or No
  • How is the city doing on transparency? Give us a letter grade from A-F.
  • Business Owners! Which of these 3 changes would make it easier for your business to grow?

3. Aim for the Sweet Spot: 5-8 Questions

Textizen supports surveys of any length, but 5-8 question surveys hit a sweet spot for most campaigns. They provide plenty of room to collect enough data and demographics to make informed decisions, while respecting peoples’ time and keeping response rates high.


Hungry for more?
Find these tips along with plenty of our other findings, examples, templates, and more in our Best Practices guide, now available to all Textizen subscribers.