Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Where's the payoff? Convincing citizens to engage with government

Governments regularly hold consultations with their public - asking them for their views on matters as widespread as tax reform, copyright, health, culture and city planning.

Whether these consultations are held through public events, print notices, online via email or social media engagement there's one constant that governments rely on - that people are willing to provide their views freely to government.

In some ways this might seem a no-brainer. A government is making a decision that will affect you - therefore you have an interest in responding.

However it is never as simple as that. It takes time (our scarcest resource) to respond to a Government consultation. Often, when there are specific forms to complete, processes to follow and events to attend, it can take a LOT of time.

Also the audience needs to feel that they will be listened to. One of the more interesting consultations I participated in last year was by the ACT government who asked a question around how they consulted. A frequently expressed view was that many people felt no incentive to participate in government consultations because their views would be ignored. Why waste time responding if you don't feel your views will make any difference.

Even harder to justify are peoples' participation in engagements where the public is providing a service to government (or other organisations) for no direct payment. An example is the National Library's Historic Newspaper Archive, where people are able to make corrections to the text of newspapers where the scanning process didn't capture the words correctly.

Another example would be Wikipedia. While it is not government, it would not exist without the dedication of tens of thousands of volunteers.

So what's the secret to encouraging greater engagement by citizens in consultations and similar 'you tell us' initiatives by government?

The answer is simple. Value given for value received.

Most people want feedback to tell them that they have been heard. This doesn't need to be (and preferably isn't) a form letter from a Minister's office or Department - or even a personal note. It can simply be notifying them when their input is published and giving them the tools to watch their contribution travel through set stages during a consultation process - received, moderated, published, considered - just as they can now watch their parcels travel from a foreign country to their doorstep.

What could also be done is to provide public recognition (a leader board) for top contributors - people who consistently provide good input on multiple consultations, or spend the time to do the work in services like the National Library's Historic Newspaper Archive does.

Finally, a consideration that is worthwhile considering when a community is providing a substitute for a valuable service (such as the design of a website, development of a mash-up application or the translation of a document) is dollars. Cold hard cash in compensation for someone's hours of hard work. This can be hard to organise in government due to procurement procedures and other practices designed to promote transparency and consistency but not designed to provide flexibility around crowd sourcing goods or services.

As governments move to implement more digitally managed consultations and engagements it is increasingly easy to support front-end consultation sites with end-to-end consultation tracking and contribution leader boards. It even becomes possible to have departmental or cross-government leader boards, which would also provide interesting insights regarding which individuals and organisations respond to many consultations.

However to cost-effectively put these mechanisms in place organisations need to look beyond the immediate needs of a single consultation and consider their overall consultation and engagement needs over three years or more.

When we begin to see governments taking this step we'll be on the verge of seeing some very innovative Gov 2.0 processes for community engagement - and increasing engagement levels as the community feels more heard, valued and in control of their own contributions.


  1. Yes, there should be incentives for people to participate, most importantly that their effort will have influence. Too many communities suffer from consultation-fatigue.

    You do need to get past the "usual suspects". When you want a broad sampling of perspectives, use well-crafted invitations to randomly-selected people to reach into some hidden corners of the population.

    Another approach that has been taken by some local government areas (Parramatta, Brisbane) is to build up a "resident feedback register" of several hundreds, even thousands of willing participants. Then draw on them all or by demographic random sampling, in survey, online dialogue group, etc. and reward them for their contributions.

  2. I'm not sure what consultation follow up is intended to achieve, unless it is to encourage greater participation in other consultations. Is there evidence of a lack of engagement? Any proposed change seems to attract significant attention from those disadvantaged by it, but little from those who stand to benefit.

    Some people only feel they have been consulted if they get what they want. In the ACT people complain because they weren't consulted about being consulted: 'You've already made up your mind to do this, or you wouldn't be asking what we think about it'.

    Cash for comment (or as you call it, consideration of consideration) exists already, with focus groups.

  3. Christina Binning WilsonMarch 21, 2010 at 4:59 AM

    I am dismayed to constantly hear the propoganda that volunteering is good for your health. It attracts vociferous prejudice that is cruel & sometimes unremitting, & however immature & inexperienced its detractors to abuse is a failsafe way of causing hurt whether it is physical, emotional or both. In the same way I was astonished when I read somewhere the results of a survey on suicide surprised its designers because they concluded money (its persistent or sudden lack) was a priority reason, I am astonished when I continue to hear the prejudice that volunteering has a salutary impact on health, which is propoganda not a rational assessment of the effect of volunteering on the health of volunteers. Our society is a money society & without it & its status individuals are subject to negative experience & isolating experience. In the first months & years of volunteering, in the discovery of activities that are diverse & opportunities to work at projects that involve satisfying outcomes including feelings of enhanced goodwill, volunteering is like any job; on the job training programmes & exposure to new ideas engender a sense of achievement & qualification that has a degree of preliminary reward. Senior volunteers in highly skilled roles carry increasing responsibility & sometimes work long hours which tips the scale in favour of a preparedness to accept remuneration. While many organisations do remunerate senior volunteers their status is blurred & the remuneration is a pittance relative to the work done assessed alongside similar work that is paid in a private enterprise. Being paid a relative pittance takes its toll. When it comes to consultations however, the hours that consultants who are volunteers put into their tasks are represented not only by the size of documents they are asked to read but by the peripheral reading they do to keep abreast of the subject area of their choice or designation. There are the conversations consultants seek to have 'on the cheap' & under stress because they are not paid for & anticipated as necessary by an agency, seeking to canvass informed professionals & relevant personnel to determine what they think about a subject or might consider, senior volunteers regardless without an office of their designated own to achieve a designated end devise methods of investigation or undertake professional studies to widen their terms of understanding of a subject, simply because there seems sometimes nowhere out of an insidious weight of responsibility but through, achieving higher & higher levels of experience yet never being quite the same in status as the professional case worker. The difference in status sits in the air & is even maintained because who wants in the paid work force to think they are worth no more than a volunteer...paid case workers sometimes never leave their office desk from morning until night, & consequently sometimes know half the volunteer consultant. Why does the myth linger that volunteering is good for your health? Because there is a pattern of behaviour that is a hangover from the days when volunteers were wealthy individuals who did 'good works' & charity work was a pursuit of salvation. It is social control, subdues reference to need, & a supply of free labour.

  4. Janice Frape of New South WalesMarch 24, 2010 at 10:41 PM

    Our writer has pinpointed to two very important aspects of public consultation: feedback and recognition.
    People who provide submissions, answer questionaires, attend groups, etc., need more than that one-off involvement. They need to see the final reports or executive summaries. They need to see the actions of government. They also need to see an assessment of those changes that have taken place to show that something has been achieved from the consultation and that it works. They also need to see where evaluation has shown that further adjustments have been made to make the decisions effective. There needs to be feedback and continued involvement for those who join the process.

    As well, there is a need for recognition by governments for the work that has taken place in the consultative process. Often organisations respond to various enquiries, white papers, consultative documents or whatever measure used. Where those organisations are NGOs, and represent the views of volunteers, the responses sent to government usually come from group meetings specifically called to prepare such submissions. This involves time in discussion and preparation, no small commitment when the response comes amid family and work life! The light dismissal of such sumissions as though it is just 'one' view denegrates the effort of the group who design the response to cover the views of a greater number of participants than the submission that is made by one individual representing their own viewpoint! There needs to be room for all the names of those who worked on the submission, even where the NGO may have had some council or board of 100 (more or less) who have endorsed the preparation to have their collective names recorded. Governments must be made aware of the depth of the participation and the breadth of that membership in assisting governments in deciding on policy and legislative matters. There must be a genuine understanding of how many people in society are particpating in a volunteer capacity to meet the needs of sections of our civil society unable to singularly be heard, to understand the reason for the response.

    Given that understanding and recognition, it will help governments understand why there is opposition to certain aspects of proposed changes; some of that opposition being very strenuous and assertive and contain well developed altenative strategies and directions from long experience and discussions through sound debate and mostly based on many personal experiences and case studies.

    When governments finally acknowledge that consultation is not just a one-off contact, and continue the conversation to the end; and, when governments finally acknowledge that consultation is not just some list of names that appear on the back pages of the report but are representative of a greater number of voices in our society, then we may convince people that engaging with the government is worth the while and worth the team effort to meet the needs of our civil society.

  5. A lack of impact visibility, or explanation as to the lack of impact, is a common complaint people make when asked about participating on consultation events. Being able to provide visibility into the consultation process, the impacts and outcomes and reasoning behind the outcomes, is important. Such visibility encourages participation and engages people beyond those voicing opposition. It also helps drive the acceptance of change; people resist change and public sector (or commercial for that matter) organisations that want to implement something new, or change the way something is current done, need to take people on the change management journey.
    While recognising that people value a dollar, and paying people for their time is valid, engaged citizens see and seek value in many other ways. Kudos and recognition motivate some, social good motivates others, sharing knowledge, opinions and beliefs still more individuals. A community engagement approach that seeks to provide deliver ‘value provided for value given’ needs to recognise that individuals are motivated in different ways.
    I sympathise with those whole feel that unless their specific perspective is reflected in the outcome, they do not feel engaged, particularly when they have a complaint. As noted by others, engagement is not a one-off consultation activity, but rather, an ongoing relationship. Organisations must move beyond consultation to engagement if they wish to build deep, insightful and sustainable relationships with stakeholders and the community.