Getting back in touch: reimagining public engagement

By Victoria Draudins

February 27, 2017

Raised hands in class of university

Government is often accused of being out of touch with society. Cory Bernardi devoted a significant portion of his short Senate address to exploring this issue when he resigned from the liberal party earlier this month. And few could forget the accusations of political elitism sparked by former Treasurer Joe Hockey’s gaffe back in 2014 that “poor people don’t drive”. However, as governments are increasingly forced to address controversial issues in the face of tightening budgets, agencies are increasingly trying to engage more meaningfully with citizens.

Been there, done that

The idea is not actually a new concept in government. Since the early 1990s, the federal Treasury for example has had a formal industry consultation program to help determine the ‘”real” economy as they sense-check their business and retail economic forecasts. Twice yearly, they travel all across the country to talk to dozens of businesses, ranging from women’s active wear brands to chocolate companies and mining conglomerates. Part of the justification for re-opening offices in Sydney and Melbourne in 2015 and 2016, following their closures at the turn of the century, was so that Treasury officials would be closer to major centres of business, industry, academia and government, and allow them to form “stronger relationships with stakeholders”.

But is traditional industry consultation broken?

While the idea of engaging with the society that you are serving as a public servant may be commonsense, traditional bureaucratic structures mean that in reality public servants rarely engage meaningfully with the citizens that will be affected by the policies and programs they create. Traditional forms of public consultation, through lengthy submissions, mean that people often feel they do not have a fair mechanism to air their views. This can still be valuable process. It is a useful way for organisations to channel their views into detailed submissions, for example. However, citizens can feel that without a lengthy and complex analysis of issues, their input won’t carry legitimacy to make their voice heard or, more commonly, that there is no point as issues have already been predetermined.

In addition, while consultations have moved online, people can also feel that the process is not very user-friendly and accessible in today’s age. Namely, it is at odds with how people engage online — where users tend to give short, concise feedback on the specific issues affecting them via company social media pages, and where they may expect to receive swift responses from the organisations in question. While some may view this type of social media interaction as trivial, companies find this source of engagement valuable enough to take seriously, employing dedicated media analysts to monitor and respond to criticism.

However, this also highlights the wider tension the government is grappling with in the attention economy — how to have meaningful, informed conversations about complex issues in a world of soundbites, mass information sources and shorter attention spans, where public apathy is exacerbated by frequent inter-party squabbling and cheap point scoring. This is further illustrated by how Donald Trump has been able to wield 140 twitter posts with such devastating effect.

New waves of engagement models

Public apathy and disenchantment with political dialogue have pushed government to look to new engagement models. While Treasury’s level of forecasting consultation may be appropriate considering its macroeconomic view, new models will have an increasing relevance for service and program delivery functions.

But while governments like NSW have open government strategies, early actions have focused on making information accessible online. While this is certainly a good step, governments can do so much more to create a two-way dialogue.

In Iceland, the Better Reykjavik online platform connects citizens to city hall. Backed by a $5 million budget, it allows citizens to put forward ideas, debate and prioritise initiatives for the city to assess each month. In an incredible feat, almost 60% of the population has participated, with 165 ideas accepted. One key to its success has been the level of deliberation by citizens built into the process, elevating the initiative to more than a simple eVoting process. Citizens can submit comments or specific “points” to an open proposal. Points are then ranked by other uses by answering yes/no to whether it was helpful. This process allows ideas to be debated and refined over time, before citizens cast a simple yes or no vote on the proposal itself. The top ideas are automatically added to the relevant municipal committee, to consider the proposal and surrounding discussions. The outcome is then published on the website, providing transparency. The initiative’s success is also down to the involvement of the then-mayor, Jón Gnarr, who put a lot of effort in encouraging citizens to use the platform. He stated “I think the best democracy from now on will be direct democracy. We have tried all kinds of democracy, but we have never really tried direct democracy. The timing is right, because we have the technology to make it more user-friendly and simple.”

In a great example of a public-private sector partnership to help developing countries, the United Nations Sustainable Cities Program and the makers of the popular video game Minecraft developed a new participatory tool to help poor communities. The tool lets residents plan how their public spaces should be used by building 3D models of their communities on Minecraft. The initiative has been used in nearly 30 locations in 20 countries, such as to develop models of the Silanga Field and Jeevanjee Gardens in Nairobi, which helped to settle disagreement over issues such as how a sports field would be used. As well as finding an on-brand way of giving back, the company further supported the cause by enabling its Minecraft users to donate, raising about US$3 million to date.

Citizen juries — a new forum for deliberative democracy

One form of engagement gaining a lot of publicity in government recently is citizen juries. They’ve been used by local councils and for statewide issues in Victoria, NSW, Queensland and South Australia in both straightforward and more complex areas. In particular they have been used to provide input into unpopular or controversial areas, like how to most fairly allocate stretched budgets or how to tackle alcohol-fueled violence. They’re also being used as a way of crowdsourcing new ideas in complex or controversial areas and to help define long term strategies. For example, the recommendations brought by two citizen juries made up a significant part of Infrastructure Victoria’s 2030 Plan, tabled in December last year. These juries seem to be most effective when the issues they’re trying to solve for are well defined and directly connected to the relevant executing bodies. Being given the time and resources to consider issues in great detail by a diverse range of participants allows for meaningful engagement and creative solutions.

However, as acknowledged among those working in this space, while adding legitimacy and ensuring those who participate in the juries ultimately feel more engaged and empowered in the decision-making process, citizen juries are just one of many inputs into the democratic process. Issues such as time and resource limitations of scaling out juries, and the correct weight that should be accorded to distributed samples of society mean that they are not appropriate in all circumstances.

Another, more novel method of engagement involves asking for input from people via interactive mapping apps. Such tools could be used by departments in a variety of ways, although they need enough publicity and interest in the topic to ensure the public actually participates. Transport for NSW launched the Nominate a Clearway campaign — the idea is that the public would help to prioritise potential new clearways on major roads by nominating them via a Google Maps application. However, it is not clear how much uptake this has had with the public. Likewise, in Melbourne another interactive mapping tool created by charity Plan International was announced in November last year to allow people to tag places around the CBD where they feel unsafe. However, the map is not currently shown on their website.

UX Design — a potential new buzzword?

While not a direct form of engagement, user experience and digital design concepts make services more accessible, easier to work with and enjoyable for users. Expertise surrounding these roles has become extremely popular in the private sector, ranging from tech savvy companies like Google to more traditional companies like ANZ. Some areas of the public sector are turning to digital or UX design as well. This will be discussed further in a forthcoming article.

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Stephen Grey
5 years ago

It is very interesting to see these methods discussed side by side. Most work on the subject focuses on one only.

There is an approach not mentioned here, based on the principle that the population is a complex system. At the micro level, the community is diverse and individuals are constantly changing their intentions and views in response to what they experience around them. At the macro level, surges of common behaviour across large numbers of people change the way society is organised and governed. Taken together, this results in a system that is never stable. As people change their position they affect the community as a whole and as the community’s structure and governing principles shift, individuals change their positions – a constant flux.

The work of David Snowden, often summarised by reference to the Cynefin framework and associated ideas, has triggered a raft of methods that can create a channel for self selected input on topics of public concern, without the danger of constraining communication with any assumptions or hypotheses that might be tacitly included in conventional processes. See an earlier piece here for some ideas on what this might entail.

Dahle Suggett
Dahle Suggett
5 years ago

Very useful to see where the innovations in citizen engagement are occurring. But a further increasingly important perspective is to understand how organisations use or accept stakeholder input and hence how to design it so it has a real impact. For instance It would be good to know the strike rate of citizen juries influencing policy; and the successful instances of co-construction of policy or implementation strategies? This also goes to the questions of who in an organisation does the consultation and are the key policy people involved and accountable?

5 years ago
Reply to  Dahle Suggett

Thanks for the comment – my new article into a citizen jury process run by Infrastructure Victoria details how the organisation used jury input as part of creating a 30 year strategy

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