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What Does Civic Engagement Mean for Local Government Today?

Traditionally, local government has thought about civic engagement in terms of how many people participated in official meetings, signed petitions or called their representatives. Engagement was, and often still is, used as a buzzword that doesn’t mean much. “We aim to improve engagement,” leaders may say, but this statement is rarely accompanied by a clear definition, reasons why or measurements of success.

Civic Engagement Defined

We agree with this definition from Thomas Erhlich in Civic Responsibility and Higher Education: “Civic engagement means working to make a difference in the civic life of communities and developing the combination of knowledge, skills, values and motivation to make that difference.” It’s about more than presence and participation – it’s about citizens developing the ability to affect change in their communities. When it comes to the “why” of engagement, think about the desired results: policies that reflect the needs and interests of citizens, and citizens that feel like their input contributes to positive outcomes.

For tactics and measurement, the old “let’s see who comes to the meeting” thinking still guides many agency’s outreach efforts. This is a huge missed opportunity. New digital channels and tools allow governments to more broadly understand and strategize their engagement efforts – and to achieve more meaningful results.

What Engagement Means to Consumer Brands

When thinking about engagement in today’s world, consider how consumers interact online with a brand. They visit the website, they may sign up for a newsletter or follow on social media. Perhaps they fill out a survey or participate in an online poll. There are so many ways to proactively participate in branded communities, and consumers do so with enthusiasm.

Municipal websites have more in common with consumer brand websites than they may think. Like consumer brands, local governments have a built-in audience with a vested interest in their success, since the well-being of the community directly impacts citizens’ quality of life. Voters legitimately care and want to be involved – but may not know how to make their voices heard. It’s up to government leaders to reach out these potential “brand advocates” and use proven engagement techniques to forge connections.

How to Measure New Civic Engagement Channels

Data from your digital engagement channels can paint a much greater picture than the attendance at a couple of meetings. Check your analytics and see how many people visit your website. How many likes, shares and impressions do you have on social media? How many people are signed up for eNotifications? What types of content gets the strongest response, and what tactics result in higher turnout for events? Track trends and solicit feedback wherever you can.

The beauty of having all this data is that you can begin to build targeted campaigns that accurately focus on slices of your populace based on their interests and behavior. The more voices you can capture, the better your policies can reflect their needs and interests – and the more people will feel heard and appreciated.

Civic Engagement Now and in the Future

Take a moment to think about your community and how you define and measure civic engagement. Is it just a buzzword or something you’re pursuing strategically? Have you broadened your definition to include social media and website participation? Do you use the input you receive to build better outcomes for citizens? In upcoming posts we’ll dig deeper into some of these questions and show you how to make significant short and long-term improvements.

At Granicus, we specialize in helping agencies research and implement user-focused improvements, and are always happy to discuss your particular needs. Request a free consultation now.