Understanding the small hurdles that block community engagement, with behavioural design

Abigail Sellman
Adrian Kearns

Part of the Hearing every voice: lessons learned from online deliberation projects session of TICTeC Show and Tells 2021
Tuesday 20th April, 15:00 – 16:00 BST

Across South Africa, municipalities recognise that community engagement in local policy-making is crucial for effective governance, but they nonetheless struggle with low and unrepresentative participation.

To address this challenge, OpenUp – an organisation based in Cape Town – developed a digital tool for community members which contained information on how to engage in local policy-making processes.

However, OpenUp soon realised that information alone was not sufficient to drive engagement. In collaboration with OpenUp, ideas42 employed their innovative behavioral design methodology, an approach that leverages insights from behavioral economics, social psychology, human centered design, and other disciplines to understand barriers to community participation and design solutions to increase engagement.

They identified eight behavioral barriers that prevent community members from actively participating in local policy-making. As one example, identity plays a large role in whether community members are civically engaged, and many simply do not see themselves as “someone who participates in local government.”

For community members who did intend to participate, they found that a variety of seemingly small hurdles, such as navigating to a website or arranging transportation, significantly deterred them from following through on their intentions. And so solutions were designed that directly addressed the barriers to improve OpenUp’s digital tool and empower the community to participate.

They added inclusive, identity-affirming language throughout the tool to help community members understand that participation is for “people like them.” They also created a submission form, for community members to contact local officials directly from the tool, without any barriers.

These low-cost and impactful solutions illustrate how civic technology can be improved through a deeper understanding of human behaviour. Providing a developer’s perspective, Adrian Kearns from OpenUp will also share how the behavioural design methodology helped them approach their work from a new angle, and how they plan to integrate it into future projects.