For the past 5 years I have been involved in a number of web civic engagement projects. I have seen as many successes as failures, which in one way or another have always been a lesson. Certainly, so much learning has taken me to conceive one of my own projects, for example Creating Frankfurt - a citizen participation project, which I developed four years ago in Germany. This project, as in the practice, has taught me what works and what doesn’t. Because of that, I can attest that there is very little information out there on evidences and references when it comes to civic innovation. A lot is just a trend or hype and few are on the quest for a sustainable and demanded citizen participation service, which is very tricky to achieve. (Hint: It is much less about technology than most believe it is).

Here are my lessons learnt:

1. No one is waiting for you

Sad, but true. Even now, in 2014, civic participation apps are still pretty much new everywhere. No one is expecting your service and that’s make it pretty hard to gain an audience. The majority of people have no expectation of civic apps and do not even know of their existence. Getting people to search and find your service is the big nut to crack on. On top of that you compete with big players such as Facebook. A Facebook campaign can be done with a few clicks and it reaches to potentially millions of people. Also, target groups such as online activists, are only a fraction of users you have to aim for. Gaining critical mass is not easy since heavy social media users are just a tiny fraction of what one needs to aim for.

2. You will not be found

How can people find your service? What are the Google search queries: “Why is there no crosswalk in X street” or “Planned new Kindergartens in 2015” or “City budget for theaters” It’s not like a used car portal, where people just google “used car” and many portals are waiting for them. Having a look at Google Adwords (a key word analysis tool) or Google Trends can be a real eye opener what people search for and what not. Gaining a long-term and critical mass, including all generations, through social media is not really working until today. You can drive clever campaigns and have lots of temporary participants, but long term users are mostly won over Google and not social media. So plain search engine optimization (SEO) is your friend here. I will write more on that in a future blog post.

In our Frankfurt project we only work with a region of a population of max. 1 million citizens, from which only a smaller number are interested in local political change and participation and have joined the project. We took a long tail strategy using lots of data. To be precise up to 30 thousand documents from the local municipality, which were hidden in a website. The content of these 30k documents is now fully indexed on Google and helps us gain long-term traffic and engagement on our platform.

3. Think in years and not in months

There are quick and effective campaigns through press work or on Facebook, but they mostly require a whole marketing strategy or a trending topic behind them. And then these are only peaks in your traffic, but not long-term growth in your audience to run a civic engagement service. Tom Steinberg told me that once and it helped me a lot to lower my expectations. Particular governmental administrations often misunderstand this about open government. They do nice little public relations initiatives, where citizens can raise their concerns, but rarely think about long standing citizen participation services. An amazing (unique) updated information service or something even much better can attract users in the long run, what governmental institutions are rarely able to establish. But the problem lies also on funding institutions, which have often have such a technology-driven approach. The technical development of the civic innovation app is funded, instead of a long term commitment to make a service sustainable. The result are numerous failed civic engagement apps, which might had a great potential, but never went beyond technical development.

4. You need strategic partners, although many players might see you as an “enemy”

Parties, administrations or politicians in general will probably not like you. You can innovate with far less resources much further than they can, but you will also need strategic partners: Forward-thinking people. But be aware it is a bit of a catch-22 situation. You can innovate much better outside these traditional structure, but their networks and resources can be of great help to gain momentum and a critical mass. Your project can be more sustainable if you have strong allies that give you space to innovate, but few partners are yet ready for such a cooperation. For instance, in our Frankfurt project we have a feature for citizens to add own ideas around urban development, which has led to great exchange, but since we have not achieved cooperation with the city, we cannot move to the next step to implement this ideas together with the local authorities. We have learnt that it is incredible difficult to form a cooperation, when your are outside the norm with a bottom-up project.

5. You need considerable resources in the long run to be sustainable

It is important to at least have a small (or better holistic) sense of how to run such services and how much they demand in terms of resources. We have decided to make our information and data service fully automatized, so new information is always provided. On the other hand this does not guarantee civic engagement. So we have the information service, which puts the topics on the table for great conversations, but for conversation and ideas to transcend they need to be implemented. We have helped citizens to network and meet offline, but we have little evidence of that impact. Impact measuring is another great challenge for such projects. mysociety.org is doing some interesting work on that area. What can really be achieved online depends on the resources one can allocate for the next months and years to come. With our limited resources, Creating Frankfurt works pretty good, but it is not there yet, where I dreamt it to be.

5. Don’t waste your time on theory

I know I don’t make myself friends when I say that, but reality is that there is way too much theory and very little practice in this field. There is a lacking of deep understanding of technology and people-centered design and interaction in online applications. I received dozens of requests from universities in the past years, and the questions were always the same: How many visitors do you have and how many members? Not a single time someone wanted to analyze what is the real impact of our citizen projects. You will need a lot of patience to listen to “experts” on civic engagement, who have never developed an app themselves and worked with real users. You will need to close your ears too many naysayers, who predict this or other another outcome. Just test things and you can prove others wrong. You have powerful analytics at your hand to find out what users want, for example A/B testing, Heatmaps, surveys, etc. The goal must be to make your service as simple as possible. Or work with method such as Design Thinking to better understand your target group. So no scientific paper is really going to help you with that. Trust me on that.

7. What you anticipate is mostly wrong

One cannot easily foresee user behavior. Users interact on platforms in very different ways to the ones expected. Or at least that happens to me time and again in my projects.

  • For example, we thought email alerts would be the winner on our Frankfurt project. But nobody really wants the information emailed.
  • We thought we need to moderate a lot of offensive content. Only 3 comments in 4 years had to be removed.
  • We thought social networking and social media must be a winner. But what if users want to be anonymous?

I hope these lessons learnt help others a little bit on their journey to sustainable civic innovations. There are amazing opportunities out there, which have led me to this fascinating trip to re-invent bottom-up driven civic innovations.

“Whenever anything new arrives we tend to overestimate the value of code and data and underestimate the value of the user.” Clay Shirky (Tweet)

Also check this post: What I Learned From Building An App For Low-Income Americans