Hands of a guy on laptop keyboard

Citizen engagement: We lack ambition in design, not technology

Published on 17 June 2013
Updated on 05 April 2024

“Whenever I am asked about the role of social media and new technologies for citizen engagement, I like to show the first minute and a half or so of this brilliant TED Talk by Dave Meslin”, writes Giulio Quaggiotto, Practice Leader, Knowledge and Innovation, UNDP in Europe and CIS in this guest blog. Giulio is a panellist at the e-Participation Day on 19th June

The reason? It doesn’t really deal with technology, but focuses on intentions and design of the engagement process – indeed, as he puts it, inclusion (or rather) exclusion by design. In my experience, it is at this level that most engagement attempts succeed or fail, and it is at this level, I would argue, that international organisations can play an important role in creating new interfaces between citizens and governments. 

As Euan Semple put it, “there’s no point being 2.0 outside of the firewall if you are barely 1.0 inside,” and unfortunately, many citizen engagement attempts only add a 2.0 veneer to what is fundamentally a 1.0 process. It is the design of the engagement that lacks ambition, not the technology (Beth Noveck made this point much more forcefully that I could ever do).

Citizen engagement: We lack ambition in design, not technology

To oversimplify, if the design process of your citizen engagement programme starts somewhere that looks like this (opposite) – as happens in most bureaucracies – you are probably already on the wrong path.

From this vantage point, the citizen is traditionally “a target” that you need to push your message to, or someone that needs to be surveyed about their needs to prove that they have been “engaged”. But what if our starting point were to map citizen assets and expertise rather than needs? (an insight I owe to Alice Casey at Nesta – see e.g. this list of 6 things that only citizens can offer to government). And what if our design process started with citizens, meeting them where they are, rather than in the comfy walls of an office (as argued by the Mayor of Calgary in this compelling interview)?

As I have argued before, today it is safer for most bureaucracies to assume that most smart people work outside of their walls, and most importantly they will never want to work for them. But could the right design process engage this “non-contractible workforce” for better policy design and service delivery?

Perhaps the best and most concise articulation I came across so far of this approach – albeit from a somewhat different perspective – comes from Mike Bracken with the UK Cabinet Office:

Citizen engagement: We lack ambition in design, not technology

Social innovation camps, hackathons, and “smart swarms” are examples of initiatives that try to engage citizens in accelerated cycles of the “new process” above. Unfortunately, as my colleague Milica Begovic noted recently, they often don’t achieve the expected results because there’s one missing player at the table – policymakers.

Is there a role for international organisations to mediate the dialogue between all players in the policy making process and explore new formats for meaningful engagement? Citizen engagement, Simon Burrel argued recently, is first and foremost an act of leadership. Are we up for the challenge? Join next week’s conversations during the e-Participation day and let’s discuss! 


1. Picture above CC license: Martin Cathrae

2. Diagram above: Mike Bracken https://goo.gl/pCTWh

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