At CitizenLab, we come to work every day because we want to shape digital citizen participation. As an unstoppable urbanisation is taking place and cities might become more important than nations, it’s time to unlock the powerhouse of collective intelligence that is residing in our cities! CitizenLab aims at making tomorrow’s governments more citizen-centric. Thus, who better than citizens to tell us how they would like to see this participation happen? So our Citizen Engagement Specialist Alex took to the streets and the parks to ask them how they would prefer to be involved in citizen participation, especially using an online participation platform like CitizenLab.

A quick word on our survey methodology

We interviewed 73 citizens in a face-to-face setting in public places in Belgium, with a prepared set of questions, both open and closed. Most of them were situational questions related to the experience around our CitizenLab platform

Discover below what citizens had to say – Democracy makers, pay attention: this is for you !

1. « Make citizens confident! »

Unfortunately, too often, citizens experience a lack of self-confidence when it comes to their impact. They feel that their contribution is not worth it and therefore, they fell a bit shy engaging publicly online to discuss what they have in mind. This is especially the case for young people who often doubt their legitimacy in taking part in the public debate. However all demographics can potentially be concerned with this issue.

online citizen participation

There are a few ways to empower citizens and make them confident:

  •      The « blank page stress » should be avoided. Indeed, it can be stressful to be one of the first contributors to an online participation platform. To push the « shyness » away, it can be interesting to « pre-populate » the platform with first projects and ideas so that citizens feel reassured and have their imagination triggered.
  •      An active dialogue between the government and the citizens on the online participation platform is also a way to show that the city is genuinely interested in what its citizens have to say, which can be a big confidence boost!
  •      Citizens can also feel more confident discussing a topic if they actually feel that they are well-informed about it: city and municipalities should bear this in mind and make this information available at all costs.

2. « Make sure the citizens remember! »

With all the cues and triggers faced by citizens online and offline, it is very important to stand out!

The citizens we have been speaking to especially emphasized the need for a strong branding of the initiative and the platform: a dedicated logo which really encapsulates what the platform is, a clear and catchy motto to be remembered for hours, even days, in the mind of people. Here, you can read more about the case study of Liège on that matter.

online citizen participation

Overall, the communication around the e-participation initiative should be original and striking to arouse the citizens’ curiosity: a fresh and professional design, interactive YouTube videos, startling well-contextualised posters in the streets etc. For example, suggesting possible ideas for a given topic : on the communication based in the park, propose “have an idea for a Summer event?” or “need more benches?”.

Indeed, a well-polished communication around the participation platform guarantees that awareness is raised, and this is the first step towards bringing the citizens to share their ideas: they have to be aware of the opportunity.

3. « Catch the citizens’ attention while they are waiting »

online citizen participation citizens tips

This goes together with the point mentioned above. When communicating about the platform, especially offline, it is more efficient to interact with citizens when they are available. For instance, when they are waiting in line. Citizens said they would not mind being solicited in the queue at the supermarket or at the post office, in public transportation (or while waiting for it). That way, bundling tips 2 and 3 is an effective way to raise awareness.

4. « Don’t (necessarily) reward citizens for participating »

Gamification is a very strong way of provoking a specific kind of behaviour and can be a primary appeal to citizen participation. Indeed, establishing a light sense of competition or “wins” can motivate citizens to contribute on the platform.

However, you should be careful about the type of rewards you want to associate with it. Gamification is not always synonym of “real life rewards”, like gifts and discounts. Usually, the citizens we talked to, what is most valued is actually social recognition, rather than material rewards. For instance, citizens will value more being first in the Top Contributors and being seen as an expert, rather than receiving rewards. The research project CitizenLab participated in together with IMECsupports these findings.

online citizen participation

Even, citizens themselves feel that rewarding civic participation could give a confusing image of the city administration and convey an awkward and ambiguous message: if you’re a good citizen, you can go to the swimming pool for free. It was also said that this was not the way forward for engaging citizens efficiently as they would only get onboard for the reward, and maybe not return to the platform afterwards. The conclusion is: gamification, and especially the rewards that are associated to it, should not be banned, but rather used wisely, in order not to damage the credibility of both the government and the initiative. 

5. « Make it (as) quick & easy (as possible) »

When it comes to the actual use and experience of the platform, citizens we asked would take it seriously, and would not do this as an « in-between » task. For that reason, it should not be too time consuming, and with a seamless UX, from the city social media and website to the online participation platform, so that no time is lost trying to figure out how it works.

Overall, citizens have a positive feeling about participation online, because it gives them a sense of non-commitment. The participation process then becomes a lot less restrictive than with physical alternatives : no need to be at a certain place at a certain time to contribute, and it does not have to imply a long-term commitment, which might scare some citizens off.

citizen tips online citizen participation

From our perspective: since we really have at heart the citizen experience, we toped that survey with user testing sessions to really make sure we offer the smoothest experience of the CitizenLab platform!

So what are the 5 things citizens want to find in an online citizen participation project?

From what we have heard from the citizens themselves, they are most likely to get involved in a citizen participation project if:

  1. The settings makes them confident in themselves and what they have to share as an opinion
  2. The project manages to trigger their curiosity and retain their attention
  3. They get solicited at good times during their day, when they wouldn’t be doing anything else anyway
  4. The government gives a trustworthy and neutral image
  5. The participation process is smooth and not too time-consuming

Something else we have missed?

Don’t hesite to share it with us in the comments below or reach to us via Twitter.

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