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Four Level Model of Engagement

Wednesday, November 20, 2013
by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken



Monday night Nick and I were at a social media workshop at the Université du Québec à Montréal, sitting at the digital governance table. We got into a really animated discussion about citizen engagement: why and how it should be done, and to what extent engagement should be enabled. Should a governing body put greater stock in the input from citizens who put in effort to have their voices heard? Or it is the responsibility or in the best interests of that body to make it easy for as many people as possible to participate in the engagement process? (The downside discussed being slacktivism or clicktivism.)

I started trying to conceptualize a model of engagement, which I think generally applies to everything from citizen-government interaction and project consultations to manager-employee discussions.


Four Level Model of Engagement


The model contains four levels of engagement: Satiation, Edification, Engagement, and Education, and their level of impact (on the project or process at hand, which I'll just call an initiative from now on) and engagement (the real or perceived meaningfulness for consulted participants).

  1. Satiation. This is check-box consultation; asking for feedback because it is required. This is sharing a initiative late in the process, 95-99% complete, and asking for input. There's no specific request or focus area, no obvious place for participants to start, and little time. Accordingly, there's little impact, for either sponsors or participants.
  2. Edification. This is soliciting input to inform a initiative, the best example being a suggestion box. It's one-way, and usually generalized - that is, not tailored to any subsets of the community of participants, and their interests or strengths. The limitation is that it lacks immediate feedback to participants, so it may be hard to participants to see the meaningfulness of their effort. The key difference from Satiation is that, at this level, the initiative should adapt due to the feedback.
  3. Engagement. At this level, participants are providing meaningful input on an initiative and there's a degree of two-way dialogue. This level adds a short-term feedback loop - generally discussion and exploration of ideas with the initiative sponsors - such that even if participants don't see their input in the final product, they know that their input was received and understood. The benefit to engagement at this level is as much long-term as initiative-specific: knowing that their input was valued, participants are far more likely to become part of the community and continue to participate in future initiatives.
  4. Education. This is the gold standard of engagement. It is also based on the feedback loops and two-way dialogue from the third level, but the key difference is that the education aspect of the engagement process is two-way as well. At the third level, the initiative changes because of the input - the sponsors become educated - and the participants leave feeling that they've had impact. At the fourth level, the participants leave the process with education as well, better understanding the operating environment and being better equipped to participate in the future. This is fostered by a high commitment to two-way dialogue and/or by developing a community that actually will correct its own misconceptions through discussion. One of the best examples of this level is participatory budgeting: municipalities engaging citizens in their planning cycles, but with a level of transparency and interactivity that demonstrates to citizens the impact of budgetary decisions on other city programs or tax levels.

One  Size Never Fits

The fourth level, Education, is the gold standard. But it's not always appropriate. It's lengthy, expensive, and complicated, and an initiative may be such that a suggestion box is all that is needed. Or, a community built through engagement at levels three and four may welcome such a light-touch method for a specific request.

In Montreal we discussed why governing bodies might want to engage deeply, and why they might want to develop a strategy to increasingly encourage people to participate at such levels. The key themes were legitimacy for decisions and unveiling complexity and use cases. But especially for the argument for governing bodies taking responsibility for enabling participants, the core of it is gaining meaningful data on which to base decisions, for results.