What does citizen engagement look like in your city or town? Is it people yelling at each other in a 6 pm meeting when most of the sane people are at home having dinner? Why does it seem like only the angriest people show up? Matt Crozier has a solution that makes public participation more palatable, more accessible, and more enjoyable for the average person. That means valuable information from a wider swath of the population. And for those of you thinking that means more angry responses, you may be surprised to hear what happens when you take engagement online.
Matt Crozier and founded Bang the Table with Crispin Butteriss in Australia in 2007. Through Bang The Table, Matt has connected with millions of people on behalf of hundreds of clients in Australia, New Zealand, the UK, Canada and the USA. Matt brought Bang the Table to the US last year.
What does the phrase “Private Side of Public Work” mean to Matt Crozier?
"It speaks to motivation. It's about what motivates us to do what we do and our public work."
Motivation for the Many
Matt’s own motivation is fueled by putting people in touch with the issues that are important to them and giving them a say. Before founding Bang The Table, Matt worked in government positions where he witnessed the small but vocal groups of people defining policy for the majority, even when the interests expressed did not represent the majority position.
Over the years Matt became passionate about giving the broader community a real voice in the public participation process. He is dedicated to the idea that we get better decisions and policies when more people are able to participate in real ways.
What is Motivation Outside of the Nine to Five?
Matt talks about the tendency for "special interests" to dominate traditional public engagement dialogs. The drivers behind the motivations for environmentalists or developers are clear and strong. They can be value driven, but they are most often also professionally driven – people are paid to be motivated.
Motivating people who aren’t being paid to care requires making engagement easy and making it understandable. Matt contends that government has a habit of making their issues inaccessible. He argues that they tend to talk to the community by publishing papers and documents, whereas the public would rather consume information in simple sound bites.
Government, Matt says, tends to put very high bars in front of participation. If you want to participate in local government discussion you have to meet until 11 o'clock at night, at times. Then, if you want your say you have the option of two minutes on an open mic in an intimidating environment or you can make a formal written submission. For some people, writing an essay about an issue is not the easiest thing to do. So, we tend to exclude large groups from participating by making it an daunting, academic, and difficult process to go through.
What Does Citizen Engagement Look Like When it Isn’t Boring and Intimidating?
Online engagement means anybody with a smartphone or a computer can participate. People can easily join the process, learn about what's going on, and have their say in a meaningful and sometimes fun way. You might be putting a pin on the map or sharing a photo that expresses what you feel. You could be sharing an idea, voting on other people's ideas or even joining a debate or a discussion.
Bang the Table sees segments of the community that are not typically seen in the traditional public meetings: younger people, busier people, people with young families. In white collar communities, they see spikes in engagement activity at about 2:00 - 3:00 p.m. in the afternoon because people choose to participate while they're at work. Online engagement platforms make it easy to for busy people to access government processes.
Storytelling to Reach Beyond Opinion
By telling stories, people can begin to understand what is behind the opinion – what formed the opinion in the first place. In current day America, in communities that are starkly divided, storytelling is a way to bring people together to understand personal history and motivations.
Bang The Table got the idea to integrate storytelling into it’s platform during the course of a project for the National Disability Insurance Scheme for the federal government. In the discussion forum, people were arguing from hard-held positions about policy and there wasn’t much give.
Then Bang the Table asked the community for their stories. They got 297 stories from disabled people and their lives and careers. The first one that came in was titled “I wish my son had cancer.” It was a powerful story about a family coping with a rare disease that had no network or support mechanisms.
After that, the stories just flowed in. They were deeply moving and quite disturbing stories from people who were living difficult lives.
Why Emotion Matters
The traditional public engagement formula: Put out a draft plan. The people who respond are those with heightened negative emotions. There is no ability to contextualize that – to understand how that compares to broader community sentiment.
Online engagement opens the door for engaging positive emotions, as well as gauging and demonstrating people’s awareness of an issue. On the one hand, you can receive input from a wider swath of the population – the population of people whose emotions aren’t so fervent. They have the opportunity to input but they don't feel that passion. On the other hand, you can engage particularly passionate people in a more constructive way. People feel more listened to. And, there is evidence that when people feel listened to and involved in their community, they feel much more satisfied with the planning and governance organizations.
Captivating Imagination Through Virtual Reality
Online engagement extends beyond mere comments in a forum. Virtual reality allows citizens to literally visualize a proposed development project. Morton Bay in southeast Queensland in Australia has embedded a virtual reality walk into its Bang The Table site. In addition, people can look through a pair of cardboard virtual reality goggles to enter a visually immersive experience, 3D experience, and explore the proposed development project.
Don’t Reinvent the Wheel
Bang The Table has invested ten years in developing a robust online engagement tool. When cities take it upon themselves to do develop their own tools, it can be expensive, time consuming, and can quickly become obsolete. Bang The Table has been gaining expertise by working across the sector with hundreds of cities and towns. They have pooled that knowledge into a single application. So before you develop your own city-specific app, reap the benefits of their hard work and reduce the cost in the process. They are providing a valuable resource.