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Citizen engagement: taking a lead from the private sector

What can government learn from companies who put their customers first?

The public sector could continue to learn a thing or two from the private sector when it comes to citizen engagement.

Leading companies and businesses in the private sector have perfected the art and science of consumer engagement and insights to consistently deliver products and services that are valued, and for which premium prices are paid.

In our current rapidly changing world, consumers are making choices not only on the quality of products and services but other social considerations on how organisations conduct their business and their ethics and sustainability footprint.

Public sector definitions of citizen engagement presently emphasise aspects of providing transparency into government processes and a means of gathering input from the public such that policy and services can add greater value and better serve the public. For example this definition from the World Bank: "Citizens play a critical role in advocating and helping to make public institutions more transparent, accountable and effective, and contributing innovative solutions to complex development challenges".

A key part of a positive engagement experience is consistency between intent, communication and process

The World Economic Forum also notes that citizen engagement is not a new concept for the public sector, with principles of participatory design and engagement having been embedded in development efforts for some time now.

What the corporate world gets right is a deep understanding of their consumer base, in terms of "what makes them tick", confidence in knowing when and how to elicit input and interactions, and their promise to consumers on what they can expect from these interactions. For example if you trial a product and then attend a focus group to share your insights, you might be given an incentive to reward your participation and your expectation is that your feedback is somehow considered in the design process.

Designing an experience that suits your needs

In Australia, and globally, citizens’ juries are increasingly being used to involve communities and constituents in decision-making. In the words of the New Democracy Foundation, “in essence a citizens’ jury is a group of randomly selected members of a community convened to consider a given topic and provide a response or recommendation to a governing body”

Since 2015 VicHealth has trialled three different citizens’ juries and deliberative forums;

  • Victoria’s Citizens’ Jury on Obesity (Remit: “How can we make it easier to eat better?”),

  • Staying on Track (Remit: “How can we support young adults on their journey to purposeful work?”),

  • Behavioural Insights & Gender Equality (Remit: “How can we make it easier to move from intention to action?”).

Each had a high degree of audience engagement and participation, which has yielded numerous insights on the effectiveness of participatory models. Two key insights stand out.

One: it is glaringly obvious for citizens and consumers when the intended goals of an organisation, the communicated goals to them and the actual experience of engagement are not aligned, or potentially even contradictory.

Keeping in touch with participants after the engagement to keep them informed of progress or share updates affirm that their input was valuable and makes them amenable to further engagement in the future

The spectrum of participation, developed by the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2), is a valuable and incredibly useful resource in this respect and can help organisations navigate their objectives for citizen engagement and designing their approaches accordingly.

A key part of a positive engagement experience is consistency between intent, communication and process. In many instances, citizens might actually prefer a lighter touch consultation and be satisfied with attending a forum to air opinions. In other instances, they may be attracted to the idea of directly coming up with recommendations for implementation. Be direct and upfront about your intended goals for engaging citizens and design an experience that supports that goal.

Taking time

The second insight is the need to value and respect peoples’ time.

Whether this comes in the form of incentives or compensation for participation, scheduling sessions when it’s easiest for people to participate, special compensations that allow particularly disadvantaged cohorts to participate, or providing feedback after the engagement to let them know what has happened with their input, participants want to know that the time they’re giving up and the input they’re providing is indeed being valued.

The public sector is often interested in recommendations that are fair and equitable for all segments of the population, and that a representative sample of the population has been engaged in decision making. Providing compensation can go a long way in garnering participation for someone who couldn’t otherwise afford to give up paid employment to be able to attend a forum.

Reimbursing travel and accommodation can make it a lot easier for someone living in a rural area to attend a metro-based session. Designing your schedule in a way that allows prayer times to be observed can make it a lot easier for some segments to participate. Keeping in touch with participants after the engagement to keep them informed of progress or share updates affirm that their input was valuable and makes them amenable to further engagement in the future.

In a rapidly changing and increasingly values-based world, there are tremendous opportunities and numerous options to put citizens at the heart of co-creating solutions with government. The private sector has a more immediate commercial imperative to get this right and can be a great source of learning on when and how to seek consumer input and deliver products and services of value.

Source: aPolitical



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