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Three inconvenient truths about civic engagement you need to know

The usual guidelines around citizen participation are missing important aspects that every project manager needs to take into account. These inconvenient truths are like the flipside of the medal. However, the negative they are, there are ways to deal with them.


Everyone who dives into citizen participation will very early encounter guides from various sources that will sound pretty alike.


The truth is that everyone (including us) agrees that there are some spheres you need to take into account to execute a successful participation project. There are countless lists of important points and these lists look very similar. Probably the points that are mentioned the most are:


  • Transparency - communicate clearly about the setup, the goal, the possibility, and the limits of your project in order not to raise false expectations, also it is important how personal data and the contributions will be used

  • Diversity - integrate people from all backgrounds to get the full picture

  • Accountability -listen to the citizens and stakeholders, answer them and follow up on what you promised

  • Accessibility - it has to be easy to participate for everyone


Consequently one might ask: if everyone knows what to do, why are so many participation projects not living up to their potential? Because let’s face it, there is a huge gap between the general wish to participate and the actual numbers of contributions in real-world projects (as also discussed here)


We believe one reason is that they are incomplete. It is true that these points form the backbone of a successful engagement project. The good thing about them is also that they are so undebatable. We can all agree on them so easily that they give a good feeling already when you are reading them. It’s a good world we’re building and everyone is happy.


Unfortunately, there are also some inconvenient truths that won’t give you a good feeling. That shed light on a reality that is more difficult and more negative, some might say.


However, if you ignore these truths, you can be as transparent, diverse, accountable, and accessible as you want and still fail. So we believe it’s time to call three of these truths out and give an idea of how to handle these problems at the same time.


Truth No. 1 - No one cares about your project

This is harsh but crucial. Yes, what you are doing might have heavy implications on the lives of your stakeholders - especially when you are in the public sector. This does not mean, however, that people actually care about your project and its success, let alone are willing to participate. Sure enough, they will object, when they don’t like the project or its effects - to make it worse, this happens often when decisions are already made. But you want them to positively and constructively contribute and for the most part, this won’t happen, just because you offer it.


You need to excite your stakeholders for your project first. For the most important stakeholder, we like to use our CivoStoryScript. With this tool, we build a powerful narrative in which this key stakeholder (mostly the citizen) is the hero of the story. We used this new method with more than a dozen clients with astonishing results.


This “hero-narrative” is not just to make it fun, but actually, so you can give an active role to your audience in your project, where they are empowered to contribute and shape it. If it is not perceived as their own project, they will continue to not really care. And your participation rate will stay low and the attitude will be negative.


However, if you build a strong hero story around your stakeholders that holds up to the truth and is reflected in the participation process, your project topic will stand out against all the other ones that battle for the attention of your stakeholder.


Truth No 2. - Stakeholders see collaboration as work, not as a privilege


This one is hiding another truth. Successful citizen participation involves more than just the citizens and the administrations. There are countless other stakeholders that can make or break your project - whether it be internal (other departments, the mayor, communications) or external (activists, economic actors, associations). You need them to make your project a success.


However, most of your stakeholders will see this collaboration as only another task on their already full to-do list. Yes, we are all democrats ready to fight for democracy - in theory. And sure, they have the possibility to impact the project. You have to be aware that this is mainly your perspective. The real question from the stakeholder you’ll need to answer is: “why should I work for you?”


Luckily, there are ways to counter this, too. Apart from the hero narrative described in truth number one (which aims at the most important stakeholder, the citzen), we for example use a mix of stakeholder mapping with a persona method that we especially adapted to civic engagement projects..


The stakeholder mapping will help you identify the persons/ organizations that could become powerful allies for your project. We usually sort them in the spheres of “power” and “attitude towards the project” Notice that we talk about potential allies. Most of the time it is a waste of time to convince your enemies. It won’t work. Your time and effort is better used focussing on the ones that could be in on board but are not yet.


After you identified your potential allies, it is worth the effort to think about possible motivators. There are different approaches but as an inspiration, this is what we use. We started with the buyer persona model where you try to build an archetype of the person you are trying to reach, including their hopes, fears, aspirations. Since, this model is for making business with people and also very detailed it does not fully serve our needs. So we adapted it to civic engagement and made it lighter so that our clients don’t have to use too much time on this. The core is to personify the one to convince by thinking about their fears, hopes, and drivers. This exercise helps to find motivators for the critical stakeholders that will convince them to collaborate on the project.


Truth No. 3:- Your success is 90% Marketing and 10% participation


A lot of times, a lot of effort is put into building a nice participation process. What are the right formats? Top-down, bottom-up, or both? Which timeline works best? Online and/ or offline participation?


These are all very valid points but in our experience, these questions aren’t the most crucial ones.


No matter if it’s towards the citizens or towards the stakeholders - building a powerful incentive to be part of the process is THE crucial phase. Of course, you need a good participation process but it won’t be worth anything if you have no one showing up and helping.


Therefore, you need to focus on the marketing of your participation project to make it a success.


And this is difficult. How often did you see slogans like “Have your say now on…” “Debate … with us”, or even “You can now participate on…”. If you want to ensure that nobody is showing up, start with these.


Effective marketing is difficult. Apart from a good narrative, you need strong key messages and slogans that resonate with your audience. You need to identify the most powerful channels and most importantly, you need to be consistent.


Be aware that your project is battling for attention. And this means that your competition is not other types of engagement. You’ll have to compete against big brands on billboards, social media influencers, radio spots for the local mall, and all other actors that want to have the attention of the citizens. The good news is that most likely you have a project that is more meaningful than a new pair of shoes or a Netflix movie. You still got to put in the effort so that your strong message has even a chance to reach your audience. This will be your 90%


Counter the truths and use synergies


These three inconvenient truths about citizen participation are real. We saw them in action so many times that we believe it would be foolish to ignore them. Fortunately, there are ways to counter them without being completely overwhelmed by the tasks. Also, you can profit from synergy effects. For example, changing the narrative into a hero story can positively affect more traditional aspects like diversity or accessibility.


Now that we have the traditional spheres of the standard guidelines and the inconvenient truths, do we have the full picture of successful participatory processes? Probably not. Life is too complex to have a checklist to solve your problems. Your project will have its individual aspects that have to be taken into account. And there are still aspects of this puzzle called civic engagement that are waiting to be solved. However, the inconvenient truths add aspects that will influence your project and are therefore a pillar of impactful and powerful citizen participation.


If you want to know more about our tools and approaches to counter the inconvenient truths, don’t hesitate to reach out. You can reach us via engagement@civocracy.org


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