Digital Cities: Civic Engagement isn’t a Checkbox

This is the eighth post in a series of excerpts from my graduate research at Cornell University; each has been adapted for the purposes of this format. To read the full report, in all its technical glory, please visit my website.

Previous Topic: The City Upon a Hill

I’m not one to push politics — but science is pretty great 🤓

This is a common trope about civic engagement I’ve heard from city halls across the USA; while I believe it holds no actual offense to the aging white male population, there is a clear expression of disdain for the contemporary forms of civic conversation. Naturally I asked what they were doing to change this perspective, to which I was met with something like, “…we are trying to meet our citizens in the community, particularly the millennials.” If you just rolled your eyes that’s ok, so did the city officials I was interviewing as they uttered that very word…millennials.

To save time, and spare you the cringe, let me just tell you the stereotypical evolution almost every medium to large city I spoke with has gone through:

  • Step 1: Sign up for Twitter, Facebook, Instagram (maybe), YouTube (maybe), NextDoor (rarely), and Snapchat (unlikely)
  • Step 2: Start blasting city information as if the platform is a megaphone, hire some young employees to manage the accounts, and mostly ignore any cohesive voice in creating content
  • Step 3: Tell the agency head you have a robust social media presence, but that the agency should really hire a consultant to build a “social media strategy” for major city initiatives
  • Step 4: Hire an outside consultant to install a pre-packaged “Social Media 101” roadmap for the city, pay extravagantly, and mostly ignore the generic advice given
  • Step 5: Wonder why the 311 Twitter handle is getting so much traffic, start responding with pre-programmed responses, get trolled for “being a government robot,” and consider shutting down the account altogether
  • Step 6: Get serious about social media — especially Twitter, everyone is on Twitter 😉 — receive immediate bureaucratic pushback for use of an improper city-to-citizen forum of communication
  • Step 7: Clear the red-tape surrounding Twitter, start engaging directly with citizens, and watch agency follower count steadily increase
  • Step 8: Try to replicate your success on Facebook
  • Step 9: Attract zero engagement and decide Facebook just “isn’t built for city government”
  • Step 10: Return to Step 4 with [insert social media platform here] as the new focus for a hired consultant
Good intentions aside, this type of strategy-loop is still dumb.

Let’s stop the madness…social media is not another utility to check the box of “civic engagement.” It is an opportunity to represent the best of the city (culture, people, events, etc.), while having a meaningful one-on-one conversation with citizens — its civic engagement at scale.

Today we are exploring the digital social media footprint and methodologies of Washington DC and the City of Nashville. Both of which have evolved beyond the mindlessness loop of good intentions outlined above, but offer concrete learnings for city agencies looking to scale citizen conversations.

Lesson 1: Broadcast with Purpose

I spent some time in the DC Office of Planning discussing the many social media initiatives they’ve leveraged in informing/soliciting feedback from their citizens. Some platforms of relevance:

  • Social Media: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube
  • Blogs: Wordpress, Medium (yay!)
  • Civic-esque: NextDoor, Textizen, MySidewalk

For all their effort they’ve found little success attracting consistent engagement within any single platform; of specific note is how they’ve cast aside civic-esque platforms, like NextDoor, for the little value they’ve offered (a sentiment shared with many cities I’ve spoken with). The team describes their main challenge as an inability balance the diversity and specificity of their content within their audience demographic. Additionally, occurrences of high activity is often identified as originating from “haters” or “groupies,” both of which they’ve found to not live in DC.

Within social media broadly they’ve felt no platform to offer a quick and easy solution with clear municipal protocols to provide scalable civic engagement — an exception being Twitter. When asked if they considered how citizens are receiving their outreach efforts the team couldn’t provide a defined strategy. I’ve found this to be a simple mistake made by many cities within their social media strategies — a mistake of focusing on the message not the user.


We’ve spoken of the City of Boston’s citizen-design focus, this mantra should carry over to cities’ social content. Consider the following scenario:

  • A new planning initiative is scheduled for citizen awareness this week
  • The commissioner wants all PR material (including social media) to hit the wires this morning by 9:00am
  • The announcement is ~500 words long, and the planning department is seeking opinions on three proposed options
  • The department currently has a Twitter and Facebook account, you are charged with managing the distribution

What is your plan for distribution, engagement, and measurement?

Before jumping in, let’s consider our citizens (mindset, location) — likely a large percentage of them will be commuting to work by train, bus, or car. How should we design our content to maximize engagement for a audience with little time (stop-and-go traffic) or passively scrolling through a timeline (bored on the train) so they will fully comprehend the basics of the announcement? Consider the visuals depicted below:

Why do certain tweets dominate others on the screen?

Out of the four iPhones which post catches your eye; if you had to rank them what order would you choose? Maybe like this…

  1. Mashable (iPhone #1)
  2. NYC Parks (iPhone #2)
  3. NPR (iPhone #4)
  4. Wall Street Journal (iPhone #3)
  5. Dwayne Johnson (iPhone #4)
  6. AP Entertainment (iPhone #3)
  7. NPR (iPhone #2)
  8. Civicist (iPhone #1)

Was my list similar to yours? How many were the same? I won’t unpack every selection in this post, but the list is constructed from the principles of human-computer interaction and cognitive awareness research — both of which direct our understanding of human attention on digital platforms. If our purpose is to stop a user scrolling to absorb our message, then we must consider a hierarchy of human attention:

  1. Media with Text Overlay: Video > Gif > Bold Color Background > Pic
  2. Media: Gif > Pic > Video
  3. Media > Text
  4. Text: #hashtags > “@username” > links > plain text

By returning to our understanding of information scaling through social networks we can construct a post to maximize our impact (i.e. Mashable, NYC Parks). A hypothetical idea:

  • Use collected b-roll of the initiative subject matter
  • Place high impact text over the image to deliver a stopping message (whatever will most likely grab attention)
  • Tag a local influencer to immediately tap a dense network cluster
  • Add some further explanatory text (perhaps a link to the website)
  • Hashtag the initiative to invite others to join the message

In this case we’ve created an information packet that is highly susceptible to cascading through a social network if it gains velocity after posting.

Lesson 2: Establish a Digital Voice

The City of Nashville is experiencing a similar dynamic, a multi-platform strategy with little overall success. Every year the city hosts Artober Nashville, a citywide art festival lasting the entire month of October encompassing +1,000 events. To manage this influx of attention, the city often hires PR consultants to manage and strategize social media campaigns.

For such a major civic event contracting an outside PR agency is completely understandable — barring extravagant costs — but should not be adopted as a long-term strategy. Consistently farming off your city’s social media technical proficiency ensures the city will fail at three things:

  1. Understanding their audience of reach
  2. Best practices around reaching citizens amongst multiple platforms
  3. Developing a digital voice in which their audience is familiar with and trusting of

Retweets, likes, comments (quality aside), shares, and impressions all represent clues to the digital identity of your network audience — a way to intimately understand how to construct content to minimize social network distance in information delivery. Put simply, deeply embedding your knowledge of your followers with the platform’s capability ensures clear strategic objectives going forward.


In preparation of last year’s Artober, I asked city officials how they examined their audience when physically marketing the event throughout the city. For physical media the City of Nashville mapped out multiple citizen archetypes to guide targeted outreach messaging — a fantastic human-design centered approach of customer discovery. However, due to the outsourcing of social media outreach this work was lost as the PR consultants constructed their own marketing material initiatives. This in itself inhibited the city’s ability to understand their audience, measure their impact, and construct an ongoing relationship (digital voice) with their followers.

Image an alternative — this time we’ll choose Instagram as our platform of choice. Artists from all over the city will be exhibiting their craft throughout the month at the festival, each with their own highly visual story. In the month leading up to the even the City of Nashville might regularly release interviews within artists with a video or picture of their craft on display. This accomplishes two primary objectives:

  1. Develops the digital voice of the city on the platform
  2. Leverages cross-promotion opportunity with artists themselves

A strategy of this type sources embeddedness from each creator’s own cluster group on the network, accelerating the initial velocity of the information being delivered, and increases the probability of a localized cascade being formed — all lessons we’ve learned before. This strategy has been used to great success by an Instagrammer called @humansofny who’s intimate interviews with regular New Yorkers humanize the incredible hidden stories found within our communities.

Each image is often highly personal, communicating a sense of intrigue and humanity about each post. As you can see by the like count, these posts garner a lot of engagement (normal citizens reach equivalent attention to one including Stephen Colbert).

Civic Engagement at Scale

We’ve examined the social media efforts of two cities, each struggling in their outreach and engagement across multiple platforms. Digital cities of tomorrow must understand engagement is not deserved or guaranteed on these platforms, they must earn the attention of their citizens by supplying engaging, considerate, and targeted content to their audience. We’ve described two unrelated strategies on targeting different platforms by leveraging the principles of social network theory. Cities must…

  • Become creative in understanding their audience’s digital identity
  • Consider each platform’s characteristics in defining a strategy
  • Seek balance between consistency and over-production

End of Excerpt

Next Topic: The City as a Platform

I welcome your feedback; keep in mind this is only a part of a series in which we’ll fully vet the concepts proposed here. Opinions are my own.

I’ve attached links to the subjects/actors of this article; periphery content was collected from a series of interviews with city employees and citizens in Washington DC and the City of Nashville. A roster of these interviews is available at request.

digital citizen