A Firsthand Lesson in Participation

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

The public service has recently been experimenting with many exercises intended to engage employees and stakeholders, which have led to many questions and discussions about what drives people to participation.

I recently wrote on our internal platform, GCconnex, that the absence of technical barriers isn't sufficient - there may still be significant informational, social, and cultural barriers. That is, even if people can theoretically find and contribute to an exercise, doesn’t mean that they’ll necessarily know about it, believe that it’s intended for them, or see their role in it.

Lessons in Participation

There’s an amazing body of knowledge on why people participate*, and I won’t scratch the surface today. But I’d like to share a lesson I experienced firsthand.

I run a summer side project called Musical Underground Ottawa, setting up in public spaces around the city with a guitar and inviting people to play a song. We capture the results, and anyone that plays is entered in a raffle for said guitar.

Here’s what I thought would matter: I figured that the free guitar would give people either incentive or social justification to play. Something along the lines of “I don’t know if I should be on Youtube, but whatever, free guitar.”

Here’s what actually mattered: Looking people in the eyes and asking them. We had a 5” by 4” sign that read “Free Guitar in Exchange for Songs”. All the information was there, but very few people volunteered. We learned on day one that we had to ask passers-by if they played guitar, and if they’d be willing to play a song for us. It was actually amazing how much that changed the dynamic.

It says to people that their contribution is valued, without them having to decide that for themselves and impose their decision on others.

The Principle Stands

In retrospect, what we learned for Musical Underground Ottawa starts to sound similar to behavioural economics (see: How Nudges Work for Government), and Cass Sunstein's work on setting defaults and making the desired choice the easy one for people to make.

If you want engagement, consider how to absolve people of the duty to singlehandedly determine that they have a contribution to make, and impose that decision on others. Instead, make it your responsibility to demonstrate that their contribution is valuable.