It's Time Agencies Rethink the Citizen

Nicolas Perez keeps a puppy he named "Irma," stuffed in his shirt, who he rescued from flooding in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, in Immokalee, Fla.

Nicolas Perez keeps a puppy he named "Irma," stuffed in his shirt, who he rescued from flooding in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, in Immokalee, Fla. Gerald Herbert/AP

Are agencies thinking about citizen engagement the right way?

Andrew H. LaVanway has been active at the intersection of government, technology, and citizen engagement for nearly 20 years. He currently leads ICF’s public sector marketing practice.

Federal agencies are spending a lot of time these days thinking about digital and technology and the citizen engagement. But as we watched heroic volunteers and the “Cajun Navy” pluck person after person from the rising floodwaters in Houston—not at government direction, but on their own initiative—we have to openly wonder if we’re really thinking about engagement in the right way. Perhaps agencies should spend less time reaching citizens and more time unleashing them as a force of positive change. It is time to rethink the citizen.

Fundamentally, citizens are different today than they were even a decade ago. They have different expectations for their experiences sure, but also new ways of adding or destroying value, rapidly advancing technical skills, vast untapped insight and local understanding, sizeable social networks, and near-unlimited wireless connectivity. They have passions, and communities, and capabilities that go largely untapped.

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Nearly all of the public sector digital discussion is consumed with outreach and finding cheaper one-way, one-touch channels to get people to do what government wants them to do. While we can agree that better web experiences are important, the current version of the citizen can—and frankly expects to—have a deeper level of engagement. Think about the roles that citizens are already filling across the digital and physical ecosystems:

  • The Promoter: Word-of-mouth recommendations from friends and family remain among the most trusted source of information about products and services, but even online reviews own more authority than advertising or press announcements. One look at your local Yelp, Google, or Facebook reviews, tells you that many citizens are actively promoting the brands they like and use often.
  • The Partner: Citizens are increasingly sharing the risk, capital expense, work and reward with the brands they support. With shared skin in the game, partners can tackle projects otherwise too risky or too expensive for a single organization. Star Citizen, a video game, raised $148 million before it even produced a complete working version.
  • The Expert: U.S. academic institutions award some 55,000 doctorate-level degrees in any given year, two-thirds in science and engineering. The digital economy has found a way to tap into this expertise using microtransactions, social rewards or simple shared passions. Intuit’s TurboTax AnswerXchange allows citizens to provide answers to complicated tax questions to other citizens, creating a free network of support.
  • The Data Point: Users are increasingly sharing discrete data points about their commutes, fitness or software bugs in exchange for some present or future value. En masse, these tiny bits of data deliver a large and very detailed map that brands harness to create new products, improve experiences or extend their reach. Waze users share their own real-time traffic and road information in exchange for others’ data to cut commutes and boost miles per gallon.
  • The Hero: Citizens are no longer waiting for an invitation from the government to aid their communities to take action. They are seeing needs for themselves, coordinating via informal digital social media or traditional connections and moving forward. They are putting themselves to work.

Citizens are filling all of these roles, engaging more regularly and deeply with the brands they favor. Citizens, for the most part, aren’t engaging more deeply, more meaningfully, or more consistently with federal agency brands. In most cases, they simply aren’t being asked to engage with the public sector.

In places where citizens are asked to engage, the results are astounding. The State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs has earned one of the highest-rated federal customer experiences because it so regularly and actively engages citizens. More than 250,000 citizens contribute solutions to Challenge.gov. The Million Veteran Program already has in excess of 500,000 voluntary samples and the largest genomic database in the world.

These kinds of results don’t require some massive transformation. They simply demand that the agency see the citizen as a participant in the mission as opposed to just the beneficiary of the mission. Here are three easy ways to start rethinking the citizen:

  1. Understand Your Audiences: Before you can rethink the citizen, you need to know who they are. Few agencies have a clear, actionable understanding of who is consuming their content. Start by building a data- and persona-based understanding of who your agency is connecting with, and use that information to pilot opportunities to engage.
  2. Open the Feedback Loop: Customer services still matters and the fastest way to push people away is to deliver a bad experience. Get a sense of what matters by simply asking citizen feedback and how can you improve this process, either during an actual event, on social media, on the web, or through email or apps.  While OMB requires agencies to route questions through them for approval, with proper planning, you can collect what matters—your citizen experience in real time.
  3. Use Challenge.gov: Already more than 100 agencies are using Challenge.gov to solve hard problems and gather insight. It is a well-worn, precedent-filled, and now conservative path for engaging citizen-experts. Take one hard problem your agency is working to solve and tap into 250,000 people willing to offer solutions.

As evidenced by customer experience rankings and trust-in-government surveys, Federal agencies continue to struggle translating the democratic experiment to the digital world. That is because now—more than ever—citizens see government as not just for the people, but of the people and by the people. The path to a renewed faith in American government doesn’t start with rethinking the experience, the technology or the brand. It starts with rethinking the citizen.

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