Digital innovation within government only happens because of its people

We often read articles calling for new innovation within government, and questioning why the implementation of new technology isn’t happening. The key issue? Those who have to undertake innovation — civil servants — need to feel empowered with both tools and knowledge.

Civocracy started as a citizen participation platform. For 3 years, we’ve been developing our software to empower government to connect with their citizens, and in turn, have them collaborate and co-create city projects.

In the early days, we simply sold the platform to governments, then observed the ways in which they structured discussions (often asking for opinions on very broad topics) and connected with their communities (predominantly through a handful of social media posts). The participation results weren’t as high as we’d hoped, which meant the tangible impact on communities was limited.

To us, success isn’t just selling. Success is when government connects with their citizens around specific, tangible ideas, and where citizens actively engage in co-creating a solution to this challenge.

So we went back to the drawing board to identify how we could increase citizen participation to ensure a greater impact: better ideas for government, increased trust in the democratic system, greater government transparency, and projects communities actually need.

The problems

After some initial research, we found that the overarching concerns about civic participation within government were twofold:

  • It was perceived that citizen engagement would be too much additional work: few believed they had the skills to carry out citizen engagement projects
  • There can be siloed thinking within government, which means job roles are rigid: this traps people within a set role, and those who take on new projects do so with caution

So we went back to the laboratory to cook up a solution to tackle these fears, and we created the Civocracy citizen-participation advisory services for civil servants.

“All departments should do the Civocracy training to learn the importance of good communication.” 
French Guiana

The aim of the training?

  • To showcase that citizen engagement isn’t a new project: it enhances existing projects
  • To develop digital competencies including digital communications strategies
  • To highlight the features and functionality of the Civocracy platform
  • To address project-related fears

In the last 12 months, we’ve held 9 different training days for 84 public-sector workers from a range of different departments within government. 97% of them would recommend these to both colleagues and other local governments entities.

“The training day was invaluable for creating a common internal culture on the topic of civic engagement, and highlighted that digital citizen participation belongs to a larger process.” 
Clients we’ve trained in the past year.

Of the public-sector workers we’ve trained, we’ve seen huge similarities in the way they react to digital citizen participation — and we’ve worked with cities who have 25k inhabitants and regions who have 12m. Each genuinely want to involve their community and to connect with them on important, relevant topics, while at the same time harbouring concerns that they won’t live up to citizen expectations (that they’ll receive criticism, that the project will fail, and that it’ll take up a huge amount of time).

Once we addressed these fears head on? The mist lifted and there was a renewed enthusiasm for beginning citizen engagement projects. Most participants felt more driven, and even drafted their first discussion topics for implementation that day.

Our highlights were the workshops on ‘expectation management’ and ‘teamwork and transversality’. In the former, we teach how cities are able to frame their own expectations, and how they can monitor the expectations of their citizens. This ensures that neither side is disappointed due to misplaced assumptions. In the latter, we help with internal team structures to define roles and responsibilities, and empower individuals to take ownership of various tasks.

The results? After applying the lessons learned, cities saw an improvement in regards to citizen participation — on average, there was a 40% increase in active engagement. Furthermore, citizen contributions were sustained over time, rather than peaking early on.

Department breakdown of those attending the sessions.

Feedback on the Civocracy training days shows that there has been a clear shift in the approach to participation. The process of citizen engagement and digital technology has become more integrated into day-to-day tasks, and is becoming an intuitive part of government process. On the other hand, it is helping re-engage more citizens with both their community and the democratic process. We see more cases of government and citizens working hand in hand, not one against the other.

“Once we understand the Civocracy platform, and ‘got our hands dirty’, it was clear digital citizen enagement was much simpler and more effective than we’d thought!” 
French Guiana

Are you about to undertake a digital citizen participation project? We have three tips for you:

  • Every project must have a purpose. You must set expectations in order to measure the project’s impact
  • Yes, it’s easy to think of the risks a project poses, but before you do, think of the opportunities it provides
  • Don’t isolate yourself. Working in teams improves idea generation and creates a better project (it’s the same logic for why you’re undertaking citizen participation!)

We understand that one training day might not be enough, or that refresher lessons might be required, which is why we also provide an online library of articles, strategy templates and other informational materials on both digital participation and the Civocracy platform’s features and functionality. Plus we run frequent webinars with our partners to deep dive into specific topics (offline participation, GDPR, digital inclusion etc).

Are you or your team interested in learning more about our digital citizen participation training? Get in touch:

Co-authored by Héloïse Le Masne, Head of Engagement and Client Management and Emily McDonnell, Head of Partnerships and Communications.