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How does engagement relate to satisfaction as a member of a community?

In the past, cities or municipalities might have done surveys by mail or phone, or hosted in-person town hall meetings. But people are busy - citizen engagement that revolves around the schedules of civic staff no longer cut it. Town hall participation rates are lower than ever, even though 38% of Americans (23% Canadians) report being dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with their municipal government.

Over the past 13 years, Vision Critical has worked with more than 650 clients in both the private and public sector to facilitate two-way communication with targeted groups of their stakeholders via VC Insight Communities. On the public sector team where I work, the results are clear: communities are more engaged, governments are able to quickly get actionable insights, and citizens have confidence that their voice is being heard.

The infographic below shows data behind the results that we were witnessing. In a survey of 4,034 randomly selected adults from Canada, the UK, and the US, we asked the following: Are people indifferent about civic issues, or is there just a need for something different? How does an engaged community relate to the satisfaction of its citizens, and what kind of engagement is the most effective?

key insights from data on citizen satisfaction

Below are four key insights that help to hone our understanding of experiencing satisfaction as a citizen in today's society.

  1. Two-way communication drives citizen satisfaction.

People indicated that two-way communication was the leading contributor to their personal satisfaction as citizens of a municipality.

How should civic leaders open a two-way dialogue with citizens? When asked to pinpoint what factors drive their satisfaction with municipal government, 38% said responsiveness, 31% said communicating the vision, and 31% said transparency.

The information that you share back with citizens is central to two-way engagement. It lets citizens know that their voices are being heard. Additionally, by communicating your vision and plans, people will be more informed in giving you feedback.

Ultimately, when done correctly, more voices added to the mix lead to better solutions to community problems - whether that be something that no one individually or civic staff on their own would have considered, or something that simply gets more people to vote 'yes' on an initiative due to collaboration. Generally, more engaged communities would have higher rates of satisfaction. However, does more engagement lead to higher satisfaction with local government, and if so, what type is the most effective?

  1. Citizens increasingly discuss politics online.

It's commonplace for civic issues to come up around the dining table or at the water cooler, but we found that more and more people go online to voice their political opinions. Almost 20% of citizens have already posted online about a municipal issue. This could include social media, blogs, forums, comments on news articles, or any other venue where they are personally voicing their opinion on civic issues.

Today, people frequently voice their opinion about aspects of their lives online. They write product reviews, or post their opinions on social media about their latest purchases or places they've been. Still, something as important as discussion around the plans and policies that govern the communities that we live in are often still locked in to 6 pm town hall meetings.

In 2014, discussing politics and public policy online makes sense. The question is what should this online environment look like?

  1. Interest in online consultation as a communication channel grows.

The majority of people that we surveyed were most interested in ways that they can be consulted about civic issues online. Of the people we talked to, 35% said they were interested in online consultation, while only 29% and 18% wanted in-person consultation and city council meetings, respectively.

Citizens want to know how they can give their opinion when they are unable to make town halls or other in-person meetings. What are their options, and is it a place where they will actually have a safe, secure place to have their voice heard?

  1. Gender differences in citizenship satisfaction exist.

Our study shows that females are more likely to feel alienated, while males are more often active but frustrated. This insight highlights the importance of knowing where citizens are coming from in order to create better consultation and engagement solutions. To engage female citizens, we need to make sure engagement solutions are inclusive. With respect to the frustration of men, this highlights the need to share back the results of surveys or the feedback received so that people know that their voice actually matters.

Many people are dissatisfied with their municipal governments, and better citizen engagement can potentially move these numbers in a more positive direction.

In a time when citizens have greater access to information and ability to voice their opinions through the Internet, many governments are already venturing out into this once foreign space to connect with their citizens. The key to reaping the benefits is creating the right environment. Mayor Dianne Watts of the City of Surrey explained to Vision Critical how "connecting and engaging [the City's] citizenry is the cornerstone" of their services - just one of many cities building meaningful and lasting engagement in online insight communities.

Whatever method of online engagement and consultation you go with, the values that seem core to all of the insights on citizen satisfaction featured in this article hinge on the trust you establish with your citizens in letting them know that you are dedicated to giving them a community that is their own and that their privacy is protected as a contributor, while feeling assured that their voice is heard.

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