Before getting your hands dirty with building a citizen participation programme, rethink why citizens would participate nota bene. Understanding the motivations and motives of citizens correctly leads to a more effective participation policy. One of the instruments to increase civic engagement is called gamification. By bringing a more competitive and fun character to your next crowdsourcing project, the engagement rate can be significantly higher.

Understanding citizens’ motivations

As Jeff Howe states it in his book ‘Crowdsourcing‘:

People are drawn to participate because some psychological, social or emotional need is being met. And when the need isn’t met, they don’t participate.

Crowdsourcing has revealed that, contrary to conventional wisdom, humans do not always behave in predictably self-interested patterns. People are driven to contribute for a complex web of motivations, including a desire to create something from which the larger community would benefit as well as the sheer joy of practicing a craft at which they excel.

Basically, motivation consists of two kinds of components: intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic motivation

Examples of intrinsic motivations are creative fulfilment, a belief in the project or even the sense of community obligation. As a consequence, intrinsic rewards are in the order of autonomy or the degree of freedom and creativity allowed by a task, being part of a community, learning during the process and any form of altruism.

To give an example, 1 out of 2 Wikipedia contributors gets its most motivation out of the fact that one contributes to the education of humanity by its deeds. In the context of a city or municipality, citizens get motivated by the fact that they can take co-ownership by proposing their ideas and, by doing so, that they can contribute to the development of their local place. Important here is that the participants’ efforts lead to a clear common goal, which is often provided by the strong ties one has with its neighbourhood or municipality.

Extrinsic motivation

Monetary rewards, gains in reputation and social recognition are good examples of extrinsic motivations. In other words, gamification — i.e. the application of game-design elements and game principles in non-game contexts such as citizen participation platforms — is a mechanism that triggers extrinsic considerations with the citizen. Offering extrinsic rewards and a sense of fun to crowdsourcing ideas from citizens can be an excellent approach to increase engagement.

Gamification in Citizen Participation

Example of how CitizenLab uses gamification to enhance civic engagement

Citizens can collect engagement points whenever their ideas get upvoted by fellow citizens.

Next to the citizens’ desire to collaborate and contribute to their community, gamification can offer them additional incentives through personal benefits. Depending on who you target with your crowdsourcing campaign, different gamification mechanisms can get used.

Social reputation

Nobody will deny that humans have a competitive nature. Keeping track of the number of upvotes participants have got on their ideas and comments, can be powerful way to offer social recognition. Citizens will do their very best to come up with great ideas, in order to collect more points and increase their score.

Another interesting element to be taken over from gamification, is displaying the citizens’ engagement points in a public leaderboard. The possibility to get gains in reputation in the community serves as a strong motive to participate.

Expertise recognition

Citizens are a heterogeneous group of individuals with each their own skills, expertise and interests. In order to recognise these different sorts of expertise (e.g. according to the topics or challenges in which they provide valuable input), rewarding them with badges can be a key driver in participation motivations. The badges that the citizen obtains can be possibly publicly recognised outside of the engagement platform by issuing an open badge.

Gamification by CitizenLab

Citizen expertise gets recognised through different badges.

This mechanism of badges also allows the local government to track and identify the citizen experts in different topics. That’s when you can get the most out of crowdsourcing: by targeting citizens based on their expertise and/or interests and present them with the right urban challenges accordingly.

Real-life rewards

Local governments can make engagement even more fun and rewarding by linking the virtual gamification scheme to real-life benefits for the engaged citizen. Many municipalities and cities have their own alternative currency to support the local economy.

Citizen participation becomes very tangible when the online engagement score becomes exchangeable for local experiences. Here as well, the rewards can get more or less personalised by linking it to the urban topic to which the citizen contributed. Wouldn’t it be fun if I can go the local theater thanks to my great ideas on the cultural policy? Or that I can go to the public swimming pool after having had much support on my ideas for sports in the city?

Increased Engagement

It’s clear that gamification can mobilise citizens effectively to participate in public decision-making. But note well that gamification can also have detrimental effects if the citizen doesn’t see the value of it. In other words, start with the sense of belonging to the local community and amplify with a smart gamification scheme. Citizen participation becomes easy and fun, whereas the municipality can crowdsource in a more targeted way. Win-win.