Citizen engagement should be integral to how any government department defines strategy and approaches policy-making. By placing engagement at the heart of everything it does, a government body – or, more broadly, a political party – will drive authenticity, transparency and accountability, build stronger connections to voters and instil a sense of trust in the public at large.
At its best, citizen engagement should mean really giving the people a say in how the decisions that will directly affect them are made. Political successes are, ultimately, about one simple thing: trust. Which party, which department, which politician, does the public trust to steer the country in the right direction. Which party is the one that really listens to the public, engages with them and reflects their wants and needs in its policies and decision making.
A 2009 report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) states: “Good decision-making requires the knowledge, experiences, views and values of the public. Implementing difficult decisions depends on citizens’ consent and support. Unless citizens understand and are engaged in the decision themselves, trust is easily lost.”
Ultimately, government departments should be creating policy in collaboration with the citizens they seek to serve. All political parties say they are the party that listens, the party that cares, the party ‘of the people’: to co-create policy directly with their voters is the ultimate gesture of this.
A 2017 Open Government guide to citizen engagement tells us: “People around the world consistently indicate that they are not content simply to engage with government through periodic elections. But they are discouraged by the real and perceived control of public decisions and decision-makers by small political and economic elites. It is important that citizen engagement is well designed and properly resourced, and that it is born from a genuine desire to involve the public and take their input into account. Good citizen engagement can support the effective functioning of democracy, the legitimacy of government, the successful implementation of policy and the achievement of social outcomes.”
Empowering citizens merely to have a voice, though, is not enough. To properly connect to the public, government departments should engage people in a constant dialogue – involving them at every stage of the decision making process. Government departments need to employ systems that facilitate citizen input in policy-making, empowering them to co-create campaigns and policy that properly reflect the needs of real people. This more open, democratic and inclusive approach would give people the opportunity and the ability to have their say, while also allowing governments to connect to groups that are traditionally harder to reach.
When Bulbshare worked with Public Health England (PHE) on its Rise Above initiative, we invited a community of young people to co-create a campaign and website alongside the government organisation in order to generate authentic and credible insight and creative content. Using Bulbshare as a tool to connect to a network of 11 to 16-year-olds, PHE created website content and a series of films in direct collaboration with young citizens – who were sharing ideas and content around issues they were close to such as online bullying, exam stress and first time sex, which ultimately led to influencing policy implementation at a national level.
If this kind of collaborative process was to become the norm for how government departments built campaigns and policy, we would have a far more inclusive political system and governments that better reflected the needs and opinions of the people the seek to serve.
Five steps to building citizen engagement
Real citizen engagement, through systems such as Bulbshare, has the power to break down the divide between governments and the public, encouraging them to work together and allowing local communities to drive the processes and influence the decisions that shape their lives. Here’s five ways in which government departments can make sure they are doing the right things to drive citizen engagement:
- Engage with the right communities that will be directly affected by the policies in question. In order to create policies that really resonate with the public, you should seek out targeted communities whose lives will be truly affected. It stands to reason that these will be the people who will have something relevant to say around those issues.
- Connect to those in society who are traditionally ignored. Marginalised groups who don’t usually engage with the traditional channels by which government departments communicate with citizens are exactly those whose voices should be heard.
- Build a mechanic to facilitate engagement. Making use of the right technology – platforms that facilitate targeted community engagement for instant feedback, ongoing two-way conversations and audience generated content – can make citizen engagement a quick and easy process.
- Test initiatives within your online communities (or communities in general), gaining validation and insights. Any policy, initiative or idea should be tested within your citizen community in order to gain insight and feedback on its popularity.
- Act on feedback and implement citizen ideas into policy. If the insight, feedback and content generated from your engagement mechanic is actually taken onboard, people will see that you are serious about listening to citizens and democratising the way you run your department.