4. Encouraging productive actions

Make it easy for residents to contribute

Make it easy for residents to usefully and meaningfully contribute to the city's work. Prioritize clear and specific requests. Make sure what you are asking people to do will actually add value to your work. Don’t waste their time by asking for vague feedback that won’t get used or to attend a meeting that doesn’t have a clear purpose.

Make contribution easy

1. Use a resident survey

Surveys are easy ways to collect data and feedback from residents that can be easily combined to inform decisions. Surveys may not seem like a productive action, but well-designed surveys produce targeted, actionable feedback. They are also a good way for residents to start participating because they take very little time, can be done at any time or place, and don’t require people to identify themselves. Done well with regular feedback, answering a survey can lead to more involved participation.

Here are some tips for deploying surveys:

  • Use digital surveys to reduce the time spent collecting, combining, and typing up results.
  • Use online survey platforms that are mobile responsive (i.e. can be taken via mobile phone or tablet) such as Typeform or SurveyGizmo.
  • Share survey results immediately with your participants, if you can. If not, collect their email address to report back .
  • Ask for clear and specific information, rather than vague or open ended feedback. For example, ask residents to rank a set of actions to help the City prioritize.
  • At the end of a survey, make sure participants:
    » Are thanked for their time
    » Understand how their input is being used
    » have ways to stay involved in the project
  • Work with community groups to promote your survey and make sure people know about it.
  • Collect demographic information in your survey to check whether or not you are reaching a representative sample of your community.

You will be successful in conducting a representative survey when you:

  • Collect responses from at least 1 in 1,000 residents, with geographic, ethnic, and age distributions similar to your city’s census data.
  • Ask questions that help you prioritize or identify actions to take
  • Write in the major languages spoken in your community, not just English
  • Have an outreach strategy to make sure people know about them
  • Share the results with the public

Learn about designing online surveys in our How To Run a Resident Survey Guide.

Example: Designing a housing survey in the City of Boulder

The Housing Boulder project was created to decide community priorities for addressing affordable housing challenges. The project team came up with a toolkit of options for what that might look like, and decided the goal was identifying options to prioritize.

Here’s an example of a question that the team started with:

Which of the following programs do you feel are the highest priority?

  • Offering home rehabilitation loans to increase safety, efficiency and code compliance
  • Expanding home buyer loan assistance programs to help low, moderate and middle income households buy homes
  • Requiring new residential development to include a fixed percentage of affordable housing units
  • Raising taxes to fund additional affordable housing units
  • Or list another program you feel would be a higher priority.

The team realized they needed a better starting point for the conversation with the community. They first needed to get people engaged around the topic of housing and get an indication of how people think about their neighborhoods before diving into specific implementations of change.

The project team iterated how their questions were written. The main participants were people within the planning department. Here’s an example of a previous question that was changed to be easier to understand:

Which of the following housing options would you support in your neighborhood?

  • Multifamily attached housing (duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, apartments, condos, or townhomes)
  • Smaller homes
  • In-law apartments (owner’s accessory units and/or accessory dwelling units)
  • Other_________________________

Phrases like multifamily attached housing and owner’s accessory units are examples of jargon that the general public doesn’t use. Next, Housing Boulder took the survey questions to the public to try them out. Their best focus group was with an organization, New Era Colorado, that gave them access to 10 university students. The students had quick feedback on the wording and what was being asked.

In the end, the question looked like this:

Are you interested in changes in your neighborhood to allow for different housing options?

  • Yes
  • Maybe, depends on circumstances
  • No

Writing the question this way brought the conversation to a level people felt knowledgeable enough to participate in. Explaining what changes in the neighborhood might look like would be saved for the next round of conversation.

2. Let people participate often and regularly

Let people participate throughout a project, not just a certain stages. This will make it easier for people to participate and help feedback continue, producing more meaningful work. Think about how people can participate from the beginning and not just react to decisions that have already been made.

3. Work with community groups

Digital technology has created many opportunities for people to productively get involved with designing and building government services. Code for America facilitates a network of volunteer groups called Brigades who work with their local governments to use technology, design, and data to improve their communities. Working with your local Brigade allows you to use your community to accomplish your goals while also creating ways for residents to participate in local government.

Example: Volunteer brigade Code for Boulder

Code for Boulder is a group of volunteers working on technology projects that are important to the Boulder, Colorado, community.

In February, Code for Boulder took part in CodeAcross, a civic hacking day designed to inspire residents to get involved in their community. To support the Boulder fellowship, they themed their February 2015 event around civic engagement and housing. “Crafting Civic Tech: The Housing Edition” was structured by brigade leaders to be an informative and collaborative conversation. Their goal was to have a few ideas emerge from the group that the brigade could work on during the year.

Despite a snowy day, 54 people showed up representing the community, city employees, and city council. For context, the City of Boulder representative talked about the housing landscape. A local software company and Brigade program sponsor, Rally Software, supplied trainers to teach the crowd the ideas of Stanford’s Design Thinking and trained volunteer facilitators prior to the event. Attendees broke off into small groups centered around crowd-generated ideas for facilitated discussions.

“The Code for Boulder Civic Tech Forum was excellent because we were encouraged to stay in the place of inquiry, rather than racing superficially to find the solution. We worked in small teams with other community members who care deeply about an issue. Each group identified two core ideas which we presented to the full group.

I am focusing on senior housing issues, and I am thrilled that two very concrete and needed tech solutions arose from our discussions today.”

Neshama Abraham, Board Member of Our Home-Colorado

At the end of the day, the attendees presented their problem statements and proposed solutions. They then dot voted on the ideas they thought were most important and quick wins. Three ideas rose to the top and one, adding more conversation around the planning permit process, became a Brigade project. City employees are invited to brigade meetings from time to time to be a part of the project discussion and the project’s progress is open to everyone on GitHub.

The event was a way for residents to discuss issues that mattered to them and helped the city form relationships with the brigade. As a follow-up, the city also solicited feedback to improve their Development Review Cases map.

4. Do research with residents

Get into the habit of doing civic user research, where residents help you understand how easy a government service is to use. Feedback from these research sessions can be used to help make services easier to use, responsive to people’s needs, and ultimately, more successful. And the act of testing a service or tool is a very direct way for citizens to feel like their feedback will be used.

Civic User Testing (CUT) Groups, a program begun by the Smart Chicago Collaborative and also active in Oakland, is a great model to structure user testing activities. You can learn more about how to implement a CUT group here.

Signs of success

You will be successful in encouraging productive actions when:

  • Government officials ask residents to get involved, and what they are asking for is clear and specific
  • Interactions between the city and the public are positive and cooperative
  • Government officials can easily understand public feedback and use it to help make decisions or implement processes
  • There are many, continuing ways to meaningfully engage with the city’s work
  • Residents understand how their involvement will change their community in the long term