Enabling Deep Citizen Participation

While attending the Government 2.0 “unconference”, I was struck by the number of people playing technology buzzword bingo instead of discussing real problems and solutions. This wasn’t surprising, since it’s easy to be drawn to the Cool New Thing™, which for government is social media.

However, all social media is not alike. Usually that label is used to denote user-contributed content and two-way conversations. It’s a reasonable working definition, but in practice social media is usually focused almost exclusively at the creation of what I’ll call “low fidelity” content. That includes tweets, posts, videos, wiki entries, etc.

Don’t get me wrong — these all have value to an organization trying to attract a larger audience. In fact, they’re a great way to get broad audience participation. But, that breadth comes at a price — the participation itself is shallow. BTW, feel free to substitute “constituency” or “customer” for “audience” if that makes more sense to you.

What are the consequences of sacrificing depth for breadth? Shallow participation creates a feedback loop with your audience, but your audience members don’t make informed actions in their real lives based on their participation. A tweet to the President may make you feel engaged, but are those 140 characters something you’re going to take away and try to change the world?

So, what’s required for deeper participation? There is much discussion on opening data from government agencies to the public, and I agree with all the principles of that movement. However, providing access to data is a means to an end, and not the end itself. Will people find it? Understand it? Do something useful with it? These are participation questions, and they are critical.

To foster deep participation from your audience, think:

  1. Provide
  2. Make
  3. Do

Let’s break that down. First, PROVIDE whatever material your audience needs to do something useful. Think raw ingredients rather than recipes. In the information space, this usually means providing data. This data need not lose its context or attribution; to the contrary metadata should ride shotgun when data goes out the door. The heuristic is “what raw material could be used to make something useful”. Data without metadata may be misunderstood, but metadata without data is just the beginning of a scavenger hunt, and not productive for anyone.

Now that you’ve taken a deep breath and released your data to the world, you can just sit back and wait for the world to slurp it up and create world-changing things with it, right? Not even close. Someone must provide tools to enable your audience to find your data, use it, and MAKE things with it. This step can sound daunting, but it’s where the real magic happens.

To know what tools you need, you must first understand what your audience wants to do and what their skills are. Only then can you craft an effective solution. What problems are they solving? These should be real world problems, so think carefully. I recommend using personas to help figure this out. (Personas are a big topic that I won’t cover here, but suffice to say that you need to think about what your audience wants to make, and create tools that enable them to make something. Or, find someone with tools like that and use them.)

The last step is really beyond your control, but it will happen if you’ve done the other two steps well. In this step, people take what they’ve made and DO something with it. Possibly even <shudder> away from their computers.


Conservation science data is made available with tools non-experts can use. An advocate uses these tools to create a map that tells a persuasive story about an environmental threat, and takes this map to her local zoning board to change policy.

After school programs in an online database with simple searching and powerful manipulation tools. A school district creates custom fliers for parents based on programs within a radius of every school and distributes them district wide, resulting in higher participation.

The bottom line is that providing data feeds is great, but it’s just the beginning. To engage the public in a meaningful way, you must also provide tools that enable them to put data into action.