The pandemic has clearly changed citizen participation. It has accelerated the digitalization of participation enormously. Both by eliminating the possibility of face-to-face meetings and by increasing the willingness of decision-makers to make quick decisions.
Digital citizen participation also existed before Covid. But the development was slow. Essentially, it was big cities, particularly progressive municipalities, and a few (government) organizations that offered digital participation options in earnest. Corona has changed that. Whether voluntary or mandatory participation, if you want to be inclusive, you have to go digital. Digital citizens' assemblies, digital surveys and even a digital citizens' council are the result.
Since the pandemic is a global challenge, the consequences are not limited to Germany or France. A recent OECD study confirms the subjective impression - people across Europe are participating more digitally than ever before.
The pandemic was a special situation. The focus on digital participation will wane. But the experience gained will stick. Digital participation can be expected to grow out of its "infancy" as a result of the pandemic. At least in terms of dissemination. The same cannot be said for the quality of the projects.
Because when you look at what digital formats are being used, it becomes clear that we need to perceive digitization differently.
Digital participation must not be the online implementation of offline participation.
In the context of digital citizen participation, it becomes clear that although we use digital tools, our thinking is not yet digitized. We continue to think analog. That is why the usual offline process is often transferred 1-to-1 to the digital world.
There can be no citizens consultation? We meet on Zoom.
The workshop has to be cancelled? We will meet on Zoom.
We want to discuss development plans? We meet on Zoom.
Everyone is actually familiar with the weaknesses. The proverbial energy in the room is missing. One is quickly distracted. Also because one feels unobserved and lacks concentration. There is even an English word for this phenomenon: "zoom fatigue". Everyone feels this way - from citizens to prime ministers.
The various video conferencing providers are trying to counteract this with new functions such as "break-out rooms", but these only partially solve the problem.
On top of that, there are often setup or connection problems. It's a running joke that the most common phrases in videoconferences are "Can you hear me?", "You're on mute" and "We can't see you".
Additionally, the videoconferencing format is inflexible. Those who can sit in front of a computer at event time may participate. Those who have other commitments (work, children) are excluded. Accordingly, the participants of videoconferences and offline events are similar. This composition is usually not diverse.
This does not mean that videoconferencing cannot or should not play a role in a participation process. But care must be taken that a maximum duration is not exceeded and that they are flanked by other formats in which people can get involved.
Because the issues raised are well known, another digital tool is often used. The discussion board. This is a web application where people can write posts and other users can comment on them or react to them via emoji, for example.
This form has great advantages. It can take place asynchronously, so it is not bound to fixed times or places. You can link as much information as you want and make it accessible to everyone. One can work with text, video, images and sound simultaneously, depending on which medium makes the most sense.
Language barriers can be overcome thanks to translation programs, and NLP can be used to help participants express themselves.
Often, a digital discussion on a so called “discussion board” is opened instead of a citizens' meeting. Almost always, however, this approach does not work.
Constructive conversation between many different people requires time, empathy and concentration. That's hard enough offline or in a meeting. But if you have at least gathered all the people in one place and look each other in the eye, it becomes a little easier. A good moderator can then help even the most reticent voices to have their say. And yet, often enough, it doesn't work offline either.
In a discussion board, the format is even more difficult to implement. Few people really take much time and focus on the debate. We all know the result: either the discussion doesn't get going or it quickly becomes unobjective because people want to get their opinions out but don't listen and talk to each other.
Again, the problem is that an analog format is digitized without thinking further about it. Of course, a discussion in a discussion board can be useful. But to do so, it must first be clear whether enough people are interested and committed enough to use this format, which has rather high barriers to entry.
Digital communities need a digital mindset
So if you want to be a digital citizen, you have to think digitally. But what does that mean? It means recognizing the rules of digitization and using them to your advantage. And that includes easy access.
Anyone who uses the Internet is virtually overwhelmed with offers and information. The time we are willing to spend on individual offers is correspondingly short. The average time spent on a website is just 40 seconds. This shows that anyone who builds high hurdles and demands a lot of time right from the start will have a hard time retaining users. Accordingly, the start of participation must be particularly easy. This applies to both information/communication and participation.
The good news is that digitization is playing into our hands here.
Information can be provided at different levels - the first visible level can and must be kept correspondingly short and crisp, while the further levels ensure the completeness of the information. As trivial as this sounds, practice almost always looks different. Keyword: death by information. All information is provided on the first page. As a consequence, the citizens surf to another page. If instead you just briefly outline what it's about and why it's important, you'll quickly notice how interest in communication grows.
We can also rely on the advantages of the digital world when it comes to engaging people. It no longer has to happen all at once. A concrete example: we can now create questionnaires of three or maybe even just one question. What would be an unmanageable effort in the old world is now an accelerator. Having just one question for citizens: mobilizes many times more participants: compared to the familiar 25 questions across all aspects. Instead, we can use several successive questionnaires to query specific target groups and topics and thus activate people again and again.
Another advantage of the digital world is the possibility to build a real community around a topic. Because if the communication and involvement is implemented well, people will keep coming back. It doesn't boil down to the 2 or 3 big meetings, the town meetings, or the Zoom meeting. It's a constant flow of information in both directions that can strengthen the sense of community and become an alliance around the project. A paradigm shift is also needed here. The way of communicating around projects needs to change in the digital world. Simply updating the project status (which must also be an important part of communication) does not build community. Instead, the topic of the project should be highlighted more broadly and in small steps. The people behind the project can become visible. Or playful elements around the project, such as a quiz can be used to strengthen the community more and more.
The last point is the possibility in the digital space to measure much more precisely what works and what doesn't. This applies to both communication and engagement. Of course, it makes sense to make a plan at the beginning of a project about when to use which formats. But in addition, we need agility in the approach. If we see that citizens are obviously much more active in brainstorming than in quick voting, then this should influence our planning. Accordingly, we should check whether there is the possibility to include additional idea generation formats. The basis for this is the data on what works and what doesn't. And digitization is helping us to collect precisely this data in real time.
These four fields - staggered communication, easy, entertaining involvement, the formation of a community, and agility in the approach - are not the only points that are changed by the digitization of citizen participation. But they are certainly key points and a good start for all considerations around communication and involvement in public projects.
The future is hybrid, combining digital and analog formats
At some point, we will be able to meet again and resume tried and true formats.
And for all our enthusiasm for the possibilities of digital participation: we should do the same. Purely digital citizen participation is not the perfect solution.
After all, it's precisely when you take advantage of the strengths of digitization that you disregard the strengths of offline participation. These include points such as the "energy" in the room, ad hoc working in small groups, the ability to focus more easily on a particular topic, and the simplified ways of establishing trust between participants.
In addition, whether individual citizens participate more digitally or more analogously is also a matter of preference and opportunity. So true diversity can only be achieved through on- and offline.
The offline meeting is still a difficult tool to replace and it should continue to be part of the tools of communication and engagement.
One thing is certain, however: the future is becoming more digital. Without the digital mindset and experience in digital communication and engagement, it will not work. And the challenges of our time, first and foremost climate change, need social alliances to be overcome.
So it's time to cut old ties and venture into new territory. To seriously pursue a new way of communicating and engaging, to experiment, be bold and question things.
If you need help with this or have ideas about how to think digitally about communication and engagement in the digital space, get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.