The Future of Civic Engagement

photo - The Future of Civic Engagement
photo - The Future of Civic Engagement
The idea of increasing the number of voices in a community conversation can be understandably intimidating. However, with the right process that enables cities to collect, verify, and organize that input, the volume can generate insight – not noise. (Getty Images)

How did a small community of less than ten thousand residents begin to increase public engagement in a way that is helpful to both local officials and constituents?

This is a guest post by Nick Mastronardi and Alex Pedersen.

There is incredible wisdom and powerful data when civic engagement is done right. But when it’s not, we get the unfortunately all-too-familiar sequence:

  • A few squeaky wheels intimidate others at city council or town hall meetings
  • The silent majority remains silent
  • Cities spend time and resources trying to re-engage the silent majority through various communication channels
  • The fractured communication leaves citizens confused and not participating
  • The lack of participation fails to deliver data
  • The squeaky wheels and organized interests get their way

Our organization, Polco, recently partnered with the city of Purcellville, Virginia to try a new approach to building an informed community, measuring sentiment, and balancing the vocal few. Recognizing major shifts and improvements in technology, we designed a new online engagement process that's easier and more insightful for decision makers and for constituents. Below are our findings from this partnership. We're excited to share what we did together and how it’s working, and we’ve highlighted five critical steps the city of Purcellville took because we believe they represent best practices in engagement.

1. Define an end state, and make a commitment to broad and long-term engagement that's easy and rewarding for your community

The city of Purcellville wanted the community to be informed on many key initiatives (and limit misinformation), feel a part of the decision-making process, and wanted decision makers to have a strong pulse on community opinions and needs for these key decisions. This was not a single-issue effort. Taking this long-term and holistic approach meant that they could build engagement into more components of their daily operations and solidify it as a habit among local officials and residents. How engagement looks from city to city may vary dramatically – some may want to engage primarily with an annual survey, others may want to poll in real time on many issues, others may want to engage primarily to message-test or for get-out-to-vote campaigns. Whatever the objective, clearly stating it and receiving buy-in from stakeholders proved critical. Interestingly, this commitment does not necessarily imply an additional time or resource burden. In many cases, developing a long term engagement plan can unify outreach channels, simplify operations, and ultimately save time.

2. Engage consistently and iteratively

Our biggest role was to help with the “how” – the method of conducting this type of engagement. We thought that, ideally, the process of engaging should be the same every time so people knew what to expect. Whether through an online forum, a dedicated Facebook page, or (in our case) on Polco, having a single consistent place to receive input from engagement creates habits among a community that keep people coming back naturally and reduces the need for outreach every time. In this case, the city posted additional policy polls about upcoming initiatives over the first few weeks of the campaign. This drew in additional members of the community and set the tone and pace for engagement into the future.

3. Reach more people for streamlined input

With a plan in place, the next effort was to attract as much as of the community as possible. This may sound straightforward, but the idea of increasing the number of voices in a conversation can be understandably intimidating. However, with the right process to collect, verify, and organize that input, the volume can generate insight, not noise. To reach the broadest base possible, we wanted to meet people where they already were online, let them engage there, and pipe input back to the central verifying and organizing database. This approach meant citizens could find opportunities to engage via Facebook, HOA email newsletters, embeddable response forms, and others. The list doesn’t even have to be limited to digital channels - for example, the city of Purcellville will be including a blurb and link on its upcoming utility bills. And by making sure that all of those outlets directed back to a central location online, there was no need to assemble data from various sources.

4. Report actionable and citable results

Having the data is important, but organizing it to make it actionable and citable was a critical next step. For instance, it's often important to verify that those who are engaging actually live in your community and collect key information such as location in the city, gender, or other demographics. We’ve seen this done manually through staff or automatically using a variety of platforms. In our case, we automatically organized the results by some interesting dimensions, such as district, to help understand geographic differences within the community. With that data in hand, the city of Purcellville had a strong understanding of how its constituents felt on specific policy initiatives and could make informed decisions based on those preferences. This is engagement with impact!

5. Reward engagement with a closed loop

At the end of the day, this input was provided by city residents, and the ability to keep engagement high is likely dependent on the city's ability to show respondents that their time had impact. We suspect the best way to do that is to communicate the outcome, and give them some closure on the issue. Regardless of whether a decision was made counter to their liking, we think closing the decision-making loop and explaining the outcome is critical to the long-term success of any engagement campaign, so we made it easy for the city to do so.

What's next?

We’ve seen great response rates from this campaign and others. Engagement is roughly 10 times that delivered by traditional methods, with nearly three percent of the population participating. But we think it’s possible to do much more. Our target is 100 times the engagement of traditional methods, with the goal of regularly engaging 30 percent of the population. More participation means more informed communities on the important city issues, with a wealth of clear and actionable data for decision makers. This is what public engagement will look like in the future.

Polco is a civic engagement platform that brings unbiased policies to voters and allows people to vote, give their opinions, and comment on policies by meeting them in the online spaces they choose: websites, blogs, emails, mobile applications, and embedded or independent widgets. Polco is an agile, social tool that enables rich data collection to ensure a wide spectrum of voices are heard and sentiment recorded. When users input their concerns, elected officials can review their validated constituents’ votes and comments to make informed and thoughtful decisions about upcoming policies. If you are interested in learning more about this case study or Polco, please contact Nick Mastronardi at nick@polco.us.

About the authors:

Nick Mastronardi is the CEO and Founder of Polco, a civic engagement platform designed for local government. Prior to starting Polco, Nick served as a Senior Economist for both the President’s Council of Economic Advisers and Amazon. Nick brings policy experience, tech expertise, and leadership from his time as an Air Force Officer and Program Manager. He holds a Ph.D. in Economics from U.T. Austin and undergraduate technical degrees from the University of Notre Dame.

Alex Pedersen is the COO and Co-founder of Polco. Prior to joining Polco, Alex served as strategy and operations analyst at Google. Before that, he served on the Political Science Faculty at the US Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, CO. Alex holds a BS in Operations Research from the US Air Force Academy and a Masters in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School.

Nick Mastronardi and Alex Pedersen
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