The success or failure of citizen engagement initiatives is often measured at a quantitative level. In Larry Larkin’s recent post – summarizing analysis undertaken by Norris and Reddick – the academics conclude that citizen participation is difficult to achieve. Their analysis is undertaken at a macro perspective – looking at a myriad of initiatives across government at local, regional and national levels.
However, there may be more to be learned by looking at individual attempts to “engage citizens” and trying to understand what works and what doesn’t.
Indeed, Donald Norris argues that citizens may not want to be engaged, may not be inclined to participate.
However, over on the Democratic Audit blog the public policy team at the LSE has published some research conducted by Bojan Cestnik and Alenka Kern from Slovenia.
This analysis concludes that participation – at a qualitative level – can be affected by design of service and user experience. By altering the user interface the levels of participation can be altered in very radical ways. Cestnik and Kern use the example of a social housing application. They show that by altering the engagement process, significant improvements in completeness and accuracy of information provided by users can be achieved.
The case study is an interesting one because it’s a clear example of where citizens clearly want to interact – there is a clear potential benefit for them. But even where such an imperative exists that’s not enough. Thought has to be given to how citizens might misunderstand – resulting in inaccurate or misleading data provision.
In the commercial world applications and engagement processes tend to be tested and iterated. There is often a clear cause and effect relationship between poor processes and (say) customer support calls. It may be the case that these cause and effect relationships are more difficult to determine in public services. But, the fact remains, not all attempts at citizen engagement are created equal. Some are good and some are bad – but the bad ones can be improved if administrators pay more regard to the citizens at the other end of an interaction.