Turning Civic Interest Into a Call-to-Action


A few years back, I was having a conversation with a very successful social entrepreneur. She ran a nonprofit that builds technology to boost engagement and participation, and her organization had done a remarkable job attracting and retaining users. We were sharing war stories, and I was keen on her input on civic technology, and in particular, how we might learn from her experience to boost usage levels on the tools we were building. She asked me an interesting question: “When someone signs up for one app, do you recommend they try out another?”

It seems obvious, in hindsight, and for any multi-app software vendors, this is a tactic commonly employed. (Even on consumer sites like Amazon, you’ve likely seen a list of related items to quickly add to your cart before checkout. The consumer phrase for this is the “upsell”—deriving additional revenue from a sale.) At that time, I was developing apps for various governments without data-sharing agreements, though, and I explained that this kind of “upsell” was logistically difficult. My friend, however, pushed back, emphasizing how important this was (paraphrased):

“When a user uses any one of your tools, they are telling you something very important. No matter what they do on the app, you’ve learned a lot about that user: that they live in a particular city, that they are willing to engage with that city online, and that they are willing to engage civically online. That makes that person very, very valuable to you.”

What she was getting at is that someone who, say, is willing to adopt a hydrant is probably willing to text in their input on public safety; or someone who is tracking their 311 service request would probably be interested in future service requests in their neighborhood. These users are probably very open to a “civic upsell.”

Ever since then, that point has stayed with me. When you consider the low civic participation rate—e.g., the historically low voter turnout rates projected this fall—we must remember that there’s a small demographic we’ll be able to engage online. As was once pointed out to me, the metrics we should consider for civic engagement do not start with the entire population; instead, our baseline should be the number of people who vote in local elections: the people civically engaged in their city. That’s typically 10-20 percent of the local adult population. To put that into context, a city with a population of 100,000 people, might have just 10,000 voters in a local election. Thus, a civic engagement app should strive for some reasonable percentage of 10,000 unique visitors over the lifetime of its use.

This only underscores the importance of understanding and capturing each and every user that engages online. The citizens that come to our online engagement apps, our city websites, open-data portals, etc., are telling us that they are part of a crucial, yet small, population: it’s the group of citizens who understand that their responsibilities extend beyond the voting booth. Still, they are an important and powerful group: one that governments and civic organizations should identify, empower, and ideally drive towards further participation. Since it’s a small pond we’re fishing in, we should do all that we can— upsell, re-engage, etc.—to make it bigger.

What does this mean in practice? I don’t think it means we need to invest in the kinds of troubling online tracking or monitoring tools oft-criticized for their privacy concerns. No, I think the answer is much simpler than that. Many government websites, for example, now feature overlays to ask users to sign up for updates, others push users to engage on social media or with other agencies; and a few even include their own “civic upsells,” such as how Gov.uk nudges users towards further civic action. It’s as simple as including a call-to-action.

Something as simple as a sign-up box opens up the door for future conversations between government and the citizen or stakeholder. Particularly in informational or transparency websites, these kinds of engagement tactics seem essential to me. When all a citizen can do is find out information or access data on a site, you’re missing a rare opportunity to turn their interest into action.

Take for instance a government’s data portal (e.g., San Francisco’s data.sfgov.org). Usage numbers on these kinds of sites are growing, as are the number of datasets; both should only grow overtime. These users range from citizens interested in how open their city is to journalists looking to keep tabs on City Hall to developers or data scientists looking to make tools or visualizations with raw government data. Still most data portals do not feature any kind of community, relationship extension or list-building functionality. That means that hundreds if not thousands of citizens are coming to a government digital interface, saying they are interested in civic data, but there isn’t a call-to-action.

Imagine instead if a city asked those users if they’d like to stay up-to-date on future data releases or connect with others interested in the topic. You could foresee a community of data journalists emerge that shares best practices and new articles, or a meetup group of developers working together on new tools, or just simply a cohort of citizens getting real-time updates on key issues (e.g., crime, health, etc.). In the long run, what you’d end up with is a growing community that could help quicken the pace of turning that dataset into a meaningful tool or app for citizens. Consider instead encouraging users to register to vote on city council transparency websites; or building a list for neighborhood watch on crime statistic sites.

No matter the tactic, the strategy is common: taking advantage of the precious time a government has with a user on its digital interface to deepen engagement and drive further action. Action may be the salient word here. By engaging even lightly with a civic interface—be it coming to a website or attending an event—citizens are taking action and telling us something. They are raising their hands to say: “We want to be involved and are willing to act.” We should listen. And warmly respond with not just one way but with many ways that this group of engaged citizens can turn that civic interest into meaningful action.

Abhi Nemani is Innovator-in-Residence at GovDelivery, the leading government communications technology company. Previously, he helped launch, build and run Code for America, where he led product strategy and growth. Prior to CfA, he worked for the Rose Institute of State and Local Government, Google and the Center for American Progress, and currently he is helping a number of civic technology organizations grow, including the OpenGov Foundation and Significance Labs.

(Image by trekandshoot / Shutterstock.com)


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