Opportunities and challanges for citizen engagement… some thoughts

World Bank’s Striking Poverty project is currently hosting an online conversation on the benefits and challenges of citizen engagement. The discussion is being led by the excellent Tiago Piexoto and the contributions are well worth reading for a deep and thoughtful insight into the powerful transformation potential of involving citizens in the decision that affect their lives. Tiago asked seven questions and I’ve made a brief contribution to the blog based on these. I’ve shared them here in a slightly edited form (read: tidied up a bit!). There are a lot of other interesting comments in the featured conversation, I highly recommend you have a read!

How can we measure the success of citizen engagement initiatives?

Measurement is difficult and problematic. What you measure depends on what you think you want to achieve. And this should be defined in advance. In addition, there will always be intangibles that you didn’t think of, so it’s equally important to be reflexive and flexible enough to capture these as well. Often as the host, you’re measuring from your perspective but remember that engagement is a two-way process so think also about 360 degree measures that show successes or failures from the perspective of all the stakeholders, including citizens. You might have reached the target 100,000 visits but the message was wrong so nobody took anything away. Nobody took any action! I’m also highly suspicious of the bureaucratic and political drive to quantify and measure in the short term. Numbers only tell one part of the story and so it’s vital that we create qualitative measures too. And we need to look at the impact of engagement over time (there can often be delayed reactions to engagement). Such things as changing levels of trust might be hard to measure but that not a reason for not trying.

How essential are processes of organisational and institutional change?

This is an interesting question. When organisations are our-dated, out-of-touch, undemocratic and unable to understand their stakeholders, change is vital! What matters is that organisations must become responsive and demonstrably reactive. The process of engagement has to change so that it’s seen internally as being ‘business as usual’ all the way through the life cycle and not a tick-box exercise once the decision’s been made. Organisations need to listen. But that’s easier said than done! They also need to pre-empt what we think of as ‘engagement’ by listening to the crowd. That’s where social media is vital. This way engagement and decision making can be shaped by prior understanding of stakeholder needs not just statistical data or policy.

Can political will towards increased participation be stimulated?

The short answer to this is that politician’s interest will be stimulated when they can see there is some benefit from doing better participation (I won’t say more, I’d rather focus on the quality of the process). If there is a clear cost/benefit argument, it will happen. This can sometimes be driven by political cycles but if you can show that the benefit is lower cost decision making (the sooner in the process a problem is discovered the less it costs to fix it!) and better outcome that more people agree with then it’s hard to argue. It might also be necessary to create new metrics to demonstrate the value of citizen engagement; the measures are out of date and out of touch then what will they actually tell you?

What role does organized civil society play in citizen engagement processes?

An absolutely vital one. How can participation happen if one side of the equation isn’t involved? I believe that we have to move from the ‘them and us’ mind set to one where we co-create. This means involving civil society in the process from day 1, involving them in the design of the participation processes and treating them as equal partners in the policy and design process.

How can we foster inclusiveness and what are the impacts of different methods of participant selection?

This comes down to trust and belief in the process. It takes time. One engagement at a time, one person at a time. As people engage, see authenticity in the process, see that the process is clear, transparent and above all genuine, then they will start to trust it. As you build trust, you build social capital. These people become your best ambassadors. But you can’t force this on people or make it happen, you have to trust the network do it… and they only will if you are authentic, so fake it and you lose!

Can we learn anything from the private sector about listening to external audiences?

Everyone can learn from everyone else. But what’s the question? Yes, public engagement can learn from other industries that engage the public, certainly from brands… building relationships, engaging the customer in a conversation (not just when you need them but over time) and reacting to customer feedback. Commercial brands have learnt to do this because they lose sales, reduce profits and ultimately shareholder returns if they don’t. They have an incentive… maybe we have to incentivise public service through measuring satisfaction with their own democratic ‘brand’. There is a penalty for politicians – they can lose their jobs – but for civil servants where is the incentive to take risk with engagement, to try something new. Failure is a key part of any successful system yet public systems are seldom allowed to fail.

What is the actual role of technology (if any) in participatory processes?

It’s a tool, technology mediates. It makes engagement possible over time and space, more people, different places. It speeds things up (not always good as at creates expectations that can be hard to manage). Digital supports off-line too by being able to aggregate conversations and disseminate data. But it’s just a tool…]]>

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