What Citizens Really Think: Civic-engagement platforms are useful, when they're used properly and with an understanding of their limitations, but they're no substitute for public opinion research.

Author:Probolsky, Adam
Position:Commentary - Reprint

Every city council, school board, and local-government agency has them: gadflies who attend every public meeting. Sometimes they may be the only public speakers. They make full use of the public-comment period to berate staff, rail against the agency, and promulgate their latest grand conspiracy theories. Every agenda item is evidence of corruption; every staff recommendation, flawed; every employee, incompetent.

For all the stress that these angry people create for public administration, giving them the opportunity to speak demonstrates the strength of our democratic institutions. But they don't represent the views of the general public, taxpayers, or voters. You'd never judge the effectiveness of your jurisdiction or agency based on the words of a few speakers during public comment. But is your agency catering to the digital equivalent?

Local governments are increasingly turning to citizen-participation or "quick poll" platforms to enhance civic engagement. The pitch of these services is compelling, but beware: These off-the-shelf tools can work against effective decision making and cause agencies to make big engagement mistakes.

Just like a public-comment period, engagement platforms provide a snap shot only of those who choose to show up. The "engaged" are just that: people who choose to talk and participate. But a handful of highly engaged citizens can skew priorities. Local governments must recognize that engagement and opt-in polling platforms are vulnerable to this selection bias.

When used properly and with an understanding of their limitations, these services are useful tools that can help local governments track, respond to, and interact with their constituents. But real citizen engagement can only come from hard work by staff and, in many cases, the help of outreach professionals and public opinion researchers who can craft unique plans for each community or agency. Communication preferences, culture, and languages spoken are just a few customization examples where fixed platforms fall short.

The biggest mistake local governments can make with engagement is failing to understand the role of research in the engagement process. Open lines of communication are always a great idea. But effective local governments understand the shortcomings of digital engagement tools and social...

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