Last month we failed again. With Civocracy we accompanied a citizen participation project in a small city. It was the first time this city went digital in citizen participation and we helped them do it. The topic was the urban development of the city in the years ahead. Convinced that the topic was important for every citizen, the administration had taken the decision to bet on the digital approach and use our digital citizen participation platform, in order to attract more people.
Usually, they had something around 10-50 people at their citizen participation events. We wanted to ramp up that number. And we did. We worked on a new process and set up a dedicated communication strategy. And there were results. We were able to attract more than 1.000 participants meaning around 30 times what they would usually achieve. The city was happy with the results and we were too.
But wait, didn’t I say we failed? If you look at it realistically, we did. 1.000 people in a city of 20.000 inhabitants means the overwhelming majority did not participate even though it was an important topic.
And it has been like that since the beginning of Civocracy - the majority of citizens do not show up for participatory consultations. And it’s not just us. Everyone in the citizen participation business fails all the time. We fail so much that we are happy with results like the described one. And this is not only true for participation projects. The same applies to public communications.
No matter how much governments and administrations communicate it seems that citizens and stakeholders just don't seem to receive the message.
Citizen participation is changing
For years or even decades, this problem was overlooked - because the demand for it was not high enough. Sure, there were people in administration and civil society that demanded more citizen participation and more transparency but the status quo worked.
This is changing now. Most and foremost fueled by the citizens.
The demand for transparency, information, and participation is higher than ever before. In a recent survey by statista stunning 81% of citizens stated that they wish for more participation. You can see it in the election campaigns and in recent projects: it’s all about getting people back on board by letting them in and letting them know.
But also in the administrations, people are changing. Driven by the ideals of a younger generation, there is a growing demand for more purpose but also more openness in governmental affairs.
So we have people on both sides, wishing for more inclusive and more transparent citizen participation.
How can it be then, that nobody makes the effort to read the information and take part in citizen participation projects?
Is it because people love the idea to be included but hate the effort to actually do something?
If this would be the case, the following would be hard to explain. In recent years we saw rising political activism all over western Society. The Friday for Future movement managed to get 250.000 people to attend the climate strike in Berlin in 2019. The German crowdsourced planned festival for democracy that achieved to raise 2 million euros. The Black Lives Matter movement mobilized people all over the world.
So, the people are ready – they just seem to need the right format.
We believe that there is a lot that governments can learn from these examples to readjust their communication and participation strategy.
Create Movements instead of "just" citizen participation
First, we need to change our perspective. Today, public communication and citizen participation are mostly driven by fear. Whether it’s about urban development, green city initiatives, or economic boosts, the main goal in 90% of the cases is to “sell” the project. And this mindset has severe consequences.
In this type of mindset, every effort is made to reach out to those who might be against the project. Who are not already persuaded. The trigger is the fear of people who might interfere with the project. Doesn't sound very exciting? Well, that's exactly how people feel.
Imagine Fridays for Future asking everyone who doesn't believe in climate change to come to the streets and discuss. How many people would actually show up?
What pushes people forward is to be part of a movement, to create something together.
The characteristic of powerful civic engagement movements
So, what are the characteristics of a good movement?
First, it is mission-driven. The movement has a clearly articulated mission. A goal that is inspirational but still attainable. The North Star, around which the people can rally.
It is the center of all things and everything else complies with it. It’s not about budget, it’s not about resources, it’s about the mission that needs to be achieved. Maybe you want to be under the top-10 green cities in Europe. Maybe you want to attain a certain level of median rent in your town. The mission is individual, but you’ll need one. Does your city have a clear mission in the center? If not, then why not?
Second, a movement is an alliance. People from different backgrounds come to gather for the cause and collaborate collectively. To work together on a project and to feel this sense of “togetherness”. If you want to create an irresistible pull-effect, you need to rally your allies, not your enemies. This doesn’t mean that everyone must have the same opinion on everything - but you need a common sense about what to achieve in order to move forward and build a community around it.
This might sound a little harsh. Maybe a little voice in your head is saying: "But shouldn't we also listen to those who are against the project, for the sake of inclusiveness?” Yes, we should definitely do that. But at the moment we are giving these people too much voice and this has to change.
And it’s not only about the administration and the citizens. In a great alliance, you will also have local economic actors, civil society, and associations.
Just think about the “scientists for future”, the “entrepreneurs for future” in the climate movement. Or the support of companies like Airbnb or Nike for Black Lives Matter. It is this kind of collaboration that changes a cause to a movement. Think thoroughly about who your potential allies in your city are and approach them.
Unlikely mentors for your participation movement
Let’s imagine you follow that path. You found your mission, you rallied your allies, everyone is motivated and ready to go. Is the job done?
Well, it’s not that easy. Now comes the hard part. You need to get the movement in motion.
And for this, our advice is to turn to two very unlikely mentors: Donald Trump and Taylor Swift.
Sounds crazy? Well, it’s not.
Let’s have a look at the former POTUS first. Despite what you think about him as a politician or character, he did something that was both unprecedented and successful and that you might want to adopt: being in constant campaigning.
For decades, governance worked like this: there was a campaign right before the elections. After the elections, the silent “working phase” began until the next election came up and it was time for campaigning again.
While this process has its logic, it kills every movement. It feels like after the election, there is nothing to be done. The Donald did it differently. There was no break with him, he just kept going. And the effect was stunning, his movement has barely lost any power even though the results of his work were to put it mildly disputable.
Are we trying to convince you that all civil servants should act like Trump? Certainly not. But the mindset of keeping the campaign alive throughout can be a powerful tool to keep your movement going. So, talk about your goals - a lot. Show your progress even if it’s little. Be loud and present in the pursuit of your vision.
If you ask now, how to be loud and present without adapting the rethoric of Donald Trump, we should take a look at the second mentor, Taylor Swift.
The world star pop singer is an absolute genius when it comes to what we call communitycation. She really includes her fans and followers into her projects.
For example, she sometimes randomly answers Fans directly on social media. Or she lets her community decide what she should wear on the red carpet - of course, the preselection of the outfits is done by her. In 2014 she even invited fans to her house to pre-listen to her new album to give feedback. She combines communication with participation in a virtuous way. What she got back was a raging fanbase that knows EVERYTHING about her.
Because she understood that we learn best when we are part of something and uses this to her advantage.
Even a citizen participation movement needs an inclusive leader
What can we learn from this when it comes to our movement? We need to communicate and include at the same time.
But there needs to be a leader - in our case the city administration - that never loses the vision out of sight. The ambassador of the process. Without this leading figure, the movement will run out of breath in no time.
But if you want a community or even fans instead of just recipients it is important to communicate by inclusion. Make use of your alliance, be creative, be human, let your community decide on certain elements, include your community in the process, while staying in control of it.
And when it comes to the inclusion of the community, make it fun! You see two outfits of Taylor Swift and have the power to decide what she is going to wear. That’s fun! Because it’s easy and light. It’s not an open question, not a heavy discussion. It’s an A or B question. We as humans love that.
When you start your movement, think about fun things for people to participate in and maintain them coming in high frequency in order to keep your community entertained and engaged. Let them decide on the name of the movement. Or make a challenge on who can plant the most trees in 2 weeks, or make a quiz where the most active participant wins a lunch date with the mayor. Why not? People need fun things to do, and you need them to internalize the information automatically.
This doesn’t mean that everything must be superficial. Of course, serious matters need serious in-depth discussion. Not all the time, but at least once in a while and certainly not to start with.
So when you initiate your movement, ask yourself “what would Taylor do”. This might give you just the right perspective.
What is the topic of your civic engagement movement
We really hope that you will believe in the idea of constant campaigning and communitycation as part of public communication and citizen participation. And maybe you consider starting such a project in their city. If so, we would be delighted. But obviously, everything starts with a first step.
In this case, we come back to the question of the mission. What is the issue that could bring the broadest alliance of the city to the table in order to collaborate and make a concrete difference?
We suppose you already know what the best mission for your city would be, but if not, we have a suggestion: in a recent study by More In Common, it emerged that 80% of Germans want the government to do more about climate change.