There’s a famous expression: you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. And the same is true for citizen participation.
The conditions for successful government-citizen collaboration must be just right. Relationships need developing, trust must be fostered, and the dialogue about what’s required and desired needs to go both ways. In order to achieve this, communication is of course key, but it’s not the only element.
So, much like the case with our thirsty but reluctant horse, good government communication can lead citizens to a place where they can contribute, but it can’t make them participate.
It may appear that there’s an easy way to combat this though. Once you’ve managed to guide citizens onto a platform where they are able to contribute to government decision-making processes, they can be presented with a number of polls and surveys which they can complete quickly and easily: “Do you agree with this statement? Of these three things, what is most important to you? On a scale of 1 to 5, how much would you like to see this in your town?”
Click. Click. Click.
While it may be easier to get a greater number of responses, citizen autonomy has been removed, and there will be little depth to the contributions.
Clickclickclick contributions don’t allow for the development of real trust, simply because citizens don’t have the space to express themselves fully or completely.
Participation represents a profound transformation in the way society interacts, and doing it efficiently and effectively builds trust, as well as helping to develop a society that has been collaboratively created.
Co-creation does not mean simply gauging opinion on topics and making yes or no decisions — policy issues are always far more complex than this. Nor does it mean offering limited information to citizens on topics, and then expecting them to take a decision on something life changing. And it isn’t governments making decisions in isolation, demanding citizen input and not informing them of the reasons why or when they can expect results. A mixture of these simply reinforce feelings of distrust that populations already feel.
We can look at Brexit as a failure on all of these. The communications around the referendum were huge. Campaigns were structured to reach out to as many different demographics as possible, but simply to capture their vote.
Ultimately, each campaign failed to offer the right information. Citizens weren’t provided with real knowledge on the EU (and politicians did little to combat “fake news”), from its legislations and day-to-day impact, to its funding and structure. The day following the vote, the top Google search was “What is the EU?”. The yes / no vote forced citizens into a corner. It effectively asked them if they were happy with the way things were. And many voted to show dissatisfaction with the current system, not to fully reject it — the structure of the vote didn’t allow citizens to express the complexity of their thoughts. Finally, the government’s lack of transparency in showing that they had no plans for if the “no” vote won is something that has increased the population’s resentment towards governing institutions.
We can see here that the large-scale communication campaigns were dangerous, because it gave the government the impression that they were enabling successful participation when in fact it was simply a one-way communication of limited information. It meant that the root of the country’s dissatisfaction wasn’t addressed, and thus means that the legitimacy of the vote is questionable, as well as fact that the base problems haven’t been solved.
Successful participation that provides the capacity for public sector transformation requires expertise, time, and in-depth work between all the relevant actors, as well as good communication to attract people to participate.
So what should successful participation look like?
Citizens need :
A range of information about the subject
To feel like they have ownership on the process
To know that their input has impact
Be transparent in their processes, and provide project updates
Consult with a range of demographics (and use a mixture of digital and offline communications to achieve this)
Use several methods and tools in order to develop a fully-rounded picture on a topic
Create a community with which they can continually re-engage
It’s clear: participation cannot simply be called communication. It is not a campaign to connect with as many people as possible. It’s something far more complex, something that involves careful thought and planning, but once it’s understood and unleashed, its potential is life changing.
Be sure to develop citizen participation in a fully-rounded fashion, because otherwise you’ll just be left with a bunch of horses, stood around some water, wondering why they’re all there…