At CitizenLab, we want to shape digital citizen participation. As cities are increasingly becoming more important than nations, it’s time to unlock that powerhouse of collective intelligence.
CitizenLab’s mission is to make tomorrow’s governments more citizen-centric. So, who better than citizens to tell us how they would like to see this participation happen? Our team experts took to the streets and parks of Brussels to ask citizens how they’d like to be involved in citizen participation, especially using an online participation platform like CitizenLab.
Our methodology: citizen interviews
We interviewed 73 citizens in a face-to-face setting in public places in Belgium. We had a set of questions prepared beforehand and selected to be an interesting combination of open and closed questions. Most of them were situational questions related to the experience around the CitizenLab platform. So let’s take a look at what citizens had to say.
Make citizens feel confident
Unfortunately, too often, citizens underestimate the impact they can truly have. They feel like their contribution is not worth the effort and feel a bit shy to engage publicly and discuss what’s on their mind. This is especially the case for young people, who are insecure about their legitimacy and authority in the public debate. Still, all demographics seem to struggle with some kind of insecurity.
Luckily, there are a few ways to empower citizens and make them feel more confident to participate:
- Find a way around the “blank page stress”. It can be overwhelming to be one of the first contributors on an online participation platform. To overcome this, it can be interesting to “pre-populate” the platform with a first set of projects and ideas. This way, citizens don’t only feel reassured, but possibly also inspired!
- Opt for active dialogue with your citizens. By engaging with them directly on the platform, you demonstrate that you are genuinely interested in what they have to say.
- Make sure to share relevant information and knowledge upfront. Citizens might feel more confident to weigh in if they are informed on the topic in question.
Help your citizens remember
Citizens are bombarded with all kinds of triggers, both online and offline. It’s important to stand out!
The citizens we talked to to especially emphasised the need for a strong branding of the initiative and the platform. Make sure you have a logo that encapsulates the essence of your platform, and a clear and catchy motto that people can remember. Take a look at the Liège case study, for example.
Overall, your communication about the platform should be original and spark your citizens’ curiosity. Opt for a modern and professional design, interactive videos, well-contextualised posters in the streets, etc. For example, you could suggest possible ideas for a given topic. On the communication channels based in the park, ask citizens “have an idea for a Summer event?” or “need more benches?”.
A well-polished communication raises awareness, and this is the first step towards engaging your citizens. In order to empower them to share their ideas, they have to be aware of the opportunity first.
Catch their attention while they are waiting
This ties in 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, approach citizens while they are waiting in line. Most citizens said they wouldn’t mind being approached in the queue at the supermarket or at the post office, in public transportation (or while waiting for it). Bundling tips 2 and 3 is an effective way to raise awareness about your participation project.
Don’t (necessarily) reward citizens for participating
Gamification is a strong way of provoking a specific kind of behaviour, and can be a primary appeal to citizen participation. 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 the participation process. Gamification does not always have to mean a “real life reward”, like a gift or discount.
Generally, citizens value social recognition, rather than material rewards. For instance, citizens will find it more valuable to rank first in the Top Contributors list and being seen as an expert, then to receive a reward. The research project CitizenLab participated in together with IMEC supports these findings.
And it goes even further than that. Citizens feel like rewarding citizen participation could actually convey a confusing message: if you’re a good citizen, you can go to the swimming pool for free.
As it turns out, most interviewees agreed that rewards are not the best way to engage citizens efficiently. Citizens would only get onboard for the reward and might not return to the platform afterwards. Gamification and the rewards that come with it shouldn’t be discarded all-together, but should be used wisely. It would be a pity to damage the credibility of the government and the project by offering the wrong reward.
Make it (as) quick & easy (as possible)
When it comes to the actual use and experience of the platform, our interviewees claimed they would take it seriously and not consider it an “in-between task”. That teaches us that the use of the platform should not be too time-consuming. A seamless UX is important, from the city’s social media channels to the website and the online participation platform. That way, no time is lost trying to figure out how it works.
Overall, the citizens we interviewed had a positive feeling about online participation, because it gives them a sense of non-commitment. The online process is a lot less restrictive than an offline alternative: there’s no need to be at a certain place at a certain time or to commit long-term, which might scare citizens off.
The 5 things citizens want to find in an online citizen participation project
From what the citizens have told us, they are most likely to get involved in a participation project if:
- They (are made to) feel empowered and confident to share ideas;
- The project manages to spark their curiosity and hold their attention;
- They are approached during appropriate times (preferably when they’re not doing anything else anyway);
- The government’s role is trustworthy and neutral;
- The participation process is smooth and not too time-consuming.
Something else we’ve missed?
Is there anything you’d like to add? We’d love to hear it! Reach out to us via Twitter.