As governments and organizations increasingly recognize the importance of online citizen engagement, here are 7 trends to watch as we start the new year.
- Mobile is Key
In the United States, smartphone-only users exceeded desktop-only users in 2015. While the desktop computer doesn’t seem to be phasing out anytime soon, people have become more mobile-dependent, including hard-to-reach demographics such as youth. Ensure that your public consultations are accessible on mobile (phones, tablets, etc.) in addition to desktop access.
- Bots, Trolling, and Other Means of Undermining Online Participation Become an Even Greater Challenge
From the rise of fake news to Twitter bots indistinguishable from real human participants, the anonymity of social media and other online forums have resulted in a toxic online atmosphere. People seeking to undermine online democratic and participatory processes have an arsenal of tools at their hands: from ballot-stuffing online polls to online harassment, these phenomena are well-documented and continue to be on the rise.
It is essential for organizations engaging online to have a clear strategy around combatting these issues. Unfortunately, simply hoping that participants are respectful and “play nice” has proven to be ineffective. Digital identity authentication and other means of verification are necessary if your organization wants to be confident that you’re engaging with real, relevant people, and ensure that feedback gathered can be trusted for defensible decision-making.
- Continued Growth of Seniors Online
With the exception of 18 countries worldwide, the largest population cohort in most countries will be over 50 years old. With the shift towards an aging population, it is necessary to ensure that seniors are included in the citizen engagement process, particularly since many issues such as social services or healthcare will impact them directly.
As we have previously discussed, the 65+ demographic is the fastest-growing group online. Over 50% of seniors use the Internet. Among senior Internet users, 71% are online daily. Social media use amongst this demographic has also tripled since 2009, and seems poised to continue increasing. By leveraging online citizen engagement methods, decision-makers can reach seniors who may not be able to participate in traditional or in-person methods, such as the bedridden, those with mobility challenges, and more.
- Greater Demand for Ongoing Engagement
Traditionally, citizen engagement looked something like this: a call for citizen feedback on a specific issue, usually in the form of inaccessible methods such as public meetings or town halls, and then radio silence until the decision is made. There is little opportunity for citizens to participate meaningfully, and little accountability on how citizen feedback has been used. As we know, this has only resulted in increased cynicism and a decline in public trust.
In our expert interview with Ian McKinnon, Chair of the National Statistics Council of Canada, he noted the trend towards an increased desire amongst citizens to provide feedback on an iterative and ongoing process. With new technologies that empower citizens to become part of the process, from start to finish, this model places citizens as equal partners. This means actively responding to citizens’ concerns, incorporating their feedback into the decision-making process at each step, communicating that to participants along the way, and closing the feedback loop to demonstrate how their input was able to influence the final decision.
- Tackling Cynicism through Dialogue-building and Transparency
Let’s be frank: political cynicism came to a head in 2016. The ongoing decline in public trust has resulted in low voter turnout, and increased political polarization. Citizens’ growing dissatisfaction with the elites have resulted in the election of increasingly populist candidates, as well as a backlash against “experts”. Unidirectional, top-down decision-making is partly to blame: it only reinforces the perception that citizens’ views don’t matter.
Citizen engagement needs to be an opportunity for dialogue and deliberation, not a PR exercise to justify decisions that have already been made. Instead of the usual poll or survey, where results go into a black box and mysteriously turn into policy decisions on the other end, it’s time to facilitate genuine dialogue and have real conversations in order to bring people into the process, and ensure that they feel heard and acknowledged.
- Merging Online and Offline Methods of Engagement
The growing popularity and necessity of online engagement doesn’t mean that offline techniques (e.g. town halls, public meetings) will become any less important or relevant. Instead, it creates new opportunities for online and offline means to collaborate and provide additional methods for participation.
For example, live-streaming town hall meetings allows people who are unable to participate in person to still watch the proceedings and stay informed about what’s going on. Many streaming sites also allow viewers to leave comments and participate despite not being there in-person. Additionally, at the end of the town hall meeting, participants (in-person or online) can continue the dialogue with an online discussion board or provide feedback in other means such as a poll or survey. By combining in-person and online forms of participation, you can facilitate a lively, engaging conversation with a diversity of participants.
- Break Down Silos and Create a More Integrated Public Engagement Experience
Think about all the different levels of government, organizations, and agencies that people may be interested in engaging with. From local/municipal governments to school districts to transportation authorities, there are countless organizations vying for the time and attention of busy citizens. However, most online engagement is spread across multiple sites, none of which are connected. For example, a participant might complete a survey for the school district and provide feedback on a proposed development in their neighbourhoods – all on different websites and with different processes. This can be confusing and it’s easy to miss out on a consultation, even ones which are extremely relevant.
At PlaceSpeak, we’re breaking down silos between all the different types of organizations with whom citizens engage. We’re also adding new tools such as our WordPress plugin to allow participants to use their authenticated credentials on external WordPress sites. By providing a one-stop shop for all types of consultations and notifying users of new consultations whenever they are created – regardless of the organization – it allows for a seamless experience and keeps people updated on the important issues that require their feedback.