Engaging Citizens: It’s a Different World - Canadian Government Executive
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June 27, 2018

Engaging Citizens: It’s a Different World

Engagement covers the full spectrum, from policy formulation and citizen feedback, to service delivery and response.

The ways governments engage with citizens have gotten a lot more complex. The skills they need to be successful in that endeavour are also changing. There’s some interesting research into this with some useful insights. Look at the changing demographics of the country with diversity growing, as well the emergence of older cohorts in the population. Add to this the arrival at full tilt of various digital platforms that both enhance and confuse engagement, often increasing its speed, but also adding much noise in the system.

Engagement covers the full spectrum, from policy formulation and citizen feedback, to service delivery and response. In all instances, change has been happening, channels have been added, and more data is bouncing around. The challenge for public servants is to harness these new channels but avoid the pitfalls that they create.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) recently published a useful paper, Skills for the a High Performing Civil Service based on a 2016 member survey. The study points out, “While service delivery, communication, consultation and engagement have long been part of the government toolkit, three trends are changing the skills required: increasingly complex service delivery landscapes; technological change which results in new channels and tools for engagement; and the expectation to incorporate more meaningful input and participation at a greater number of stages of the policy/service design process.”

Citizen engagement is not just one sequential step in the process of policy development or service design and delivery. It is a continuous process as policies are being designed, tested and re-evaluated. On the service side, it is life beyond the satisfaction survey with a continuous flow of feedback through multiple channels. It also means that public servants need to help citizen navigate complex service delivery systems. They become, in essence, pathfinders for citizens.

At the same time, citizens become real participants not only in using government services but also in creating them. They also, through social media that governments do not control, now can create information that will recast how services are accessed.

Where does this take us when looking at the public service skills challenges for citizen engagement in the future? Government still needs the policy and delivery skills that it has honed. However, layered onto them are new challenges that government executives need to think about and assess their preparedness and capacity.

Here are a few:

Social Media Skills: Are your key staff in both policy and delivery knowledgeable and capable to handle the social media elements of their work? Do they have a policy framework for its use? Is there a strategy for using social media in such areas as policy crowdsourcing and service feedback? Is there training and updating, or is your organization relying upon the very unreliable notion that “the young ones will figure it out”? As Maria Gintova of Ryerson University notes in a recent research paper, Part of the problem is that there is no understanding of what the effective use of social media by government looks like.”[i]

Co-Creation Competence: In terms of citizen engagement, the notion of co-creation – the structured engagement of those involved in the policy field either as partners or service receivers, throughout the cycle of the activity – has moved onto centre stage. Does your organization have a strategy on co-creation? Does it guide staff to act collaboratively with citizens and stakeholders? Are staff trained and equipped to engage on a longer-term basis with citizens? Can you ensure continuity in the fact of staff turnover?

Engagement is Tough Work and, at Times, Not Pretty: There is a dark side to citizen engagement. It takes a lot out of staff who face negativity, a barrage of complaints, potential social media attacks and, ultimately, the inability to make everyone happy. The research on the effects of these on front-line leaders goes back a long way. Think of Michael Lipsky’s 1980 classic.[ii] Is your organization aware of the impact of citizen engagement on its employees? Does it train them for this? Does it have support systems in place?

Convener Skills: A study on community engagement done by the Government of New Brunswick a decade ago made the important point that government officials, as they engage the public, are less in control and more in a facilitative role. It noted, “Seeking advice and encouraging collaboration require very different discussions than the traditional public consultation model. Instead, government officials must be prepared to convene, facilitate, enable and partner with various groups and interests within a community to find consensus regarding societal goals and the accompanying public policies and programs.”[iii] Do staff in your organization have the convener skills they need to do this? Do you have the data analysis capacity available to understand how individuals interact with different agencies that should be working together for that person?

Engagement is work. It always has been. As it changes, get your people ready.

[i] Maria Gintova, Understanding government use of social media in Canada: opportunities and barriers Paper presented at the 2017 Canadian Political Science Association Annual Conference, Ryerson University, Toronto, Ontario

[ii] Lipsky, Michael, 1980. Street-level Bureaucracy: Dilemmas of the Individual in Public Services, New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

[iii] It’s More Than Talk; Listen, Learn and Act; A New Model for Public Engagement, The Final Report of the Public Engagement Initiative April 2008

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