Democracy by design

Greg Johnson

25 Apr 2017, 3 p.m.
Room 4

Governments in many democratic countries are increasingly looking to harness the internet to promote engagement with constituents and increase public trust.

One popular type of online civic engagement, used by thousands of local governments in the United States and other western societies, is the online public consultation. These are platforms that seek comments from constituents on a specific public policy or project.

In reality these platforms often face a major problem for governments and citizens alike — too few participate. In St. Petersburg, FL only about 200 people participated on their platform from a city of 250,000 residents. In other cities participation is even lower. This is often after governments promote their platforms via email, social media, traditional media, and at local events.

Little research exists to look at the underlying reasons behind these low participation rates. Do most people not care about this type of civic engagement? Are these platforms poorly designed from a UX perspective? Do many governments paradoxically lack the capability to effectively reach their citizens in the digital age?

Using data from an online experiment and civic engagement platforms used by three city governments in the United States, this paper tackles these questions and provides an evidence based strategy for designing successful public consultations. In an era marked by echo chambers in much of the social web as well as declining trust in democratic institutions, governments and civic technologists need to confront these questions and find solutions — fast.