Go where your audience is

This post originally appeared on the European Union 2.0 blog, run by Tony Lockett. It is drawn from a workshop on “E-ambassadors: Engaging citizens in a digital world” at the Europcom conference on 18 October 2012

I had the pleasure of moderating a workshop on “E-ambassadors: Engaging citizens in a digital world” at EuropCom this week, the largest European conference bringing together local, national and EU public communicators.

I shared the floor with four speakers, three of which had a local experience to share, and one university professor, so overall the workshop was a good balance between case studies and exploring more theoretical challenges of online citizen engagement. Here are some good ideas and reflections from the workshop.

Managing expectations from both citizens and government authorities

One of the main lessons of the case studies presented was that it is very important to make sure citizens understand what’s in it for them when they engage with public authorities and what they can expect from this engagement. Announcing upfront how many days it takes to get a response, telling citizens how exactly their input will be used in the policy-making process, and being transparent about all the elements of engagement with citizens is crucial to ensure that trust and motivation remain high.

Too often however, we tend to forget the government side of this equation. E-participation government newbies tend to believe that the more people participate, the more legitimate the result. But what really matters according to our speakers is quality, not quantity. As such, democratic representativity should not be the primary goal of public communicators in these initiatives. As one speaker recalled, participatory democracy will never replace representative democracy, but rather complement it. Today maybe, but what about tomorrow?

Steffen Albrecht from Zebralog (@Zebralog on Twitter) who presented online participatory budgeting initiatives in Germany, stated that if 1-5% of the citizens participated in a constructive way in a co-created budget exercise, it was already a success. This was questioned by workshop participants, but another speaker, Carles Agusti i Hernandez from the City of Barcelona, confirmed that when citizens engage with public authorities, 95% of the output from citizens is of a trivial nature, and only around 5% of the input really contributes to moving the proposal forward.

It seems this view is also shared by EU communicators experienced in stakeholder engagement, and reminded me of the digital engagement campaign for the EU Digital Agenda.

Finding the right mix between offline and online initiatives

It was very interesting to note that all the local communicators taking the floor made a case for mixing offline and online engagement opportunities for citizens, thereby avoiding any questions from the floor about a possible digital divide. It was good to hear this, even though I am personally convinced that the two environments have different things to offer, and thus should not be used mirroring each other, but rather complementing each other.

There was a good question from the audience about people who are afraid of voicing their opinions publicly and how to engage these. It seems that e-participation is here the ideal tool, allowing for anonymous contributions to be posted. But can true civic engagement be anonymous? My views on this topic have evolved from a clear-cut no to a more nuanced approach, especially since the advent of social media and online civic change movements such as Change.org and Anonymous (in their own special way).

To explore more on the above two topics, read this excellent paper on Promising practices in online engagement by the American non-profit Public Agenda.

Leveraging citizen communicators

E-participation initiatives presented at this EuropCom workshop explored the possibilities of controlled engagement, but what about civic engagement on uncontrolled media? Angel Crespo Herrero from the University of Cantabria in Spain, presented some examples of controlled and uncontrolled online place branding. The most notorious and controversial example was certainly the Sweden Twitter account, handed over every week by the Swedish Institute to a Swedish citizen.

Electronic word of mouth, or eWOM for acronym lovers, is a promising new marketing field, which is difficult for public administrations to leverage, because it involves loss of control. The speakers shared some useful tips to overcome this impression of loss and be more efficient (and I add a few ideas here too):

  • monitor and listen to lovers AND haters of your brand;
  • develop recovery strategies to turn enemies into advocates (expensive, but very effective if you manage to achieve this);
  • turn your staff and customers into brand ambassadors (make this real, not just by stating it, but by offering tools and training for them). Starbucks and Zappos are well-known examples of companies with great brand ambassadors.
  • address criticism in a way that will make your response go viral and overshadow the original criticism. A great example of that is in the recent Bodyform video response to an angry Facebook fan.

The million-dollar questions

With Xavier Crouan from the Ile-de-France region, the debate took a more philosophical turn. He mixed examples of regional open data initiatives with reflections on the sociological impact of social networks on our way of communicating as government officials. I was really hooked when he shared his view that public administrations, contrary to private businesses, can be more audacious in a crisis context when it comes to addressing citizen needs. This, of course, if they work together with associations and non-profits in a co-creation mode.

Some questions, including some posted on Twitter by workshop participants, were left unanswered, and the answers to those would actually make the lives of EU communicators much easier:

  • How to engage online with citizens speaking many different languages?
  • How to go where the citizens are – the most effective approach to citizen engagement, online AND offline- when you work across several countries?
  • How to create and spur intergovernmental emulation in online citizen engagement? Several examples of this already exist in the field of open data with the Open Government Partnership i.a.?
  • How to better educate citizens to understand the added value of co-creation, knowledge-sharing and e-participation?

Any answers to these questions using concrete examples or case studies are most welcome, as are any thoughts on the above reflections. It was nice to have a panel of speakers who built a consistent picture of how citizen engagement can enrich and build trust in government work, sending a clear signal that you have to go where the people are, whether townhall or online community.

Online conversations during the workshop can be tracked using the hashtag #europcom on Twitter.

Read more

If you want to explore the topic from a more seminal approach, must-reads include:


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