Technology can help local governments expand their reach to a broad cross-section of the community (and clearly see who is being left out), help people understand the issues at hand, encourage productive actions, and demonstrate how those actions are creating positive outcomes.

Over the past five years, Code for America has worked with local governments across the country and developed a number of tools designed to increase participation and engagement. We have seen that there are five key elements of effective 21st century community engagement.

  1. Reach: Governments need to define the constituency they are trying to reach, with an emphasis on identifying those whose voices aren’t already represented.
  2. Information: Relevant information should be easy to find and understand, spoken in a clear, simple, and authentic voice.
  3. Channels: A diversity of engagement channels should be used, both online and offline, that meet people where they are.
  4. Productive Actions: Identify clear, concrete and meaningful actions that the community can take to reach their desired outcomes.
  5. Feedback Loops: An engagement process isn't complete until the community has been followed up with and shown how their actions have impacted positive outcomes.

When the community sees their actions contributing to positive outcomes for all people, we should see an increase in the number of people using their hands (and not just their voices) to help, and stronger relationships form between community and government.

1. Expanding Reach

Engaging residents in the public feedback process

An effective engagement strategy reaches constituents who don’t usually take part in public feedback. It pays attention to the people and communities who will be most affected by the policies and processes that result. This allows you to get a fuller understanding of what your community needs, and create programs and policies that meet those needs.

Expanding the reach of your engagement means:

  • Understanding who is currently participating
  • Identifying who is not currently participating
  • Setting clear goals around the people who need to be reached
  • Making a plan to reach those goals
  • Checking often to make sure those goals are being met

Understand who makes up your community

The goal of your engagement strategy is to reach a representative sample of your community. You can use data from the Census Bureau to understand the demographic makeup of your community and identify who you need to be reaching. Free tools like Census Reporter make it easy to find and understand this information.

Measure your effectiveness

If you've collected data about who is taking part in your process so far, compare these figures against Census data to understand who isn’t participating yet. Use Census data to set a baseline and check whether your results are over or under that figure. This will show which groups are currently under- or overrepresented. For example, if 65% of your community is under 40 but only 20% of your participation is from people under 40, that group is underrepresented and should be a priority for future outreach.

If you aren't measuring the reach of your engagement efforts yet, here's a few simple ways to find out who is taking part in existing forums and channels:

  • Sticky dot exercise. During a public meeting, label poster boards with categories for key demographics you are interested in such as age ranges, education levels, or gender. Have dot stickers available for people to place on the boards to show the groups they identify with.
  • Paper surveys. At the end of a public meeting, conduct an attendee satisfaction survey that asks participants to provide basic demographic information and feedback on the quality and effectiveness of the meeting. This creates an important feedback loop and helps you measure who you are reaching.
  • Online surveys. Online surveys are a quick and easy way to reach new audiences. Be sure to include questions that collect demographic information so you can understand who your survey is reaching. When designing your survey, use a tool that supports mobile-responsive surveys such as Typeform or SurveyGizmo. Many residents now rely on phones or tablets to access the web.
  • “Clicker” surveys. Handheld electronic polling devices, known as “clickers,” can be distributed to audience members and used to gather responses to questions. The meeting leader asks a question of the group, audience members key in their response using the clicker, and the answers can then be instantly displayed to the group. Ask demographic questions to find out who is in the audience at the beginning of the meeting. Ask for reactions to a particular issue before and after the meeting to track how opinions have changed.

Set clear goals

Once you understand who you’re reaching, set concrete goals about how you would like to expand your reach. Communities that are underrepresented in your efforts to date should become priority groups for your future work. Focus on your biggest gaps first.

Well-defined goals state who you want to reach, how much you want to increase participation, and by when. Setting goals like this will allow you to clearly measure your success.

Examples of good goals include:

  • By the end of July 2015, increase participation among the targeted constituent group by 50%.
  • Achieve representation from people under 40 in at least three city-hosted events by June 2015.
  • Before the proposal goes before Council, hold neighborhood meetings in three underrepresented neighborhoods with at least 50 people attending each event.

Build relationships with key groups in the community

Regardless of tactics and technology, an effective engagement strategy is built upon a strong foundation of relationships. When trying to engage historically underrepresented residents, creating partnerships and working with other groups who already work with those residents is an important step. For example, if you have a goal to engage more residents under age 40, consider working with student organizations or young professional associations.

Take the time to personally meet community leaders, attend their group’s meetings, and show genuine interest in their respective needs. Doing this will help you build a coalition of community groups that will share information and invite their members to participate in your work.

Regularly measure your progress

Throughout your process, regularly measure your progress against your goals and the baselines you set at the beginning. If you’re trying new tactics or approaches but not getting the participation you were expecting or need for your goal, be ready to adjust your strategy. Keep track of all your data in one place and make notes about what worked and what didn’t for future projects.

Signs of success

When your outreach strategy is successful:

  • Your participants (both online and in-person) are representative of your community’s geographic, ethnic, age, income and other demographic distributions.
  • You’ve made demographic data collection part of every engagement tactic (public meetings, online surveys, social media, etc.).
  • You’re building relationships with local community groups that represent some of your harder to reach demographics.
  • You are regularly measuring and checking who you are reaching, and taking steps to improve your reach.

2. Providing relevant and usable information

Help people understand the issue you’re seeking input on

Once you have identified the people you want to reach, you need them to understand the issue you’re seeking input on and how they can participate. The web is increasingly the primary place people expect to find information, take action, and communicate with government. When making information available, you should ask questions like:

  • Can people easily understand the issue we’re discussing?
  • Can people easily understand how they may be affected by the issue?
  • Can people easily understand the process for making decisions on this issue?
  • Can people easily understand how to get involved?
  • Is the information about this issue or topic comprehensive and up to date?

Prioritize what your residents need

Residents come to your website to get specific answers. Most of them don’t want to scroll through a long list of project documents and outdated press releases. Do research to understand what your users need. Then, provide actionable and understandable answers to those needs at the beginning of your website. Once you have a working prototype, do more user research and testing to check that your website is easy for people to use and understand.

To understand what residents are looking for:

  • Talk to residents before you start writing content. Find out what they currently know and what questions they have about the issue.
  • Use Google Trends to understand the words people are searching for related to your issue.
  • Do regular user testing sessions to check in with people on how they are using your content and how they navigate and understand it.
  • Use user-centered design to develop a clean, consistent visual layout, navigation and content strategy.

Write for the web

Good web content is accurate and easy to read. It also is displayed differently than a technical document or report. Writing for the web means:

  • Keeping information brief and to the point.
  • Using plain, simple, jargon-free language.
  • Structuring pages to work clearly across a variety of platforms and devices.
  • Publishing information in the most commonly spoken languages in your community in addition to English whenever possible.
  • Publishing information in open digital formats, like HTML, instead of proprietary formats like PDFs. Open digital formats make content more accessible across more platforms, including mobile devices which are often the primary way residents access the Internet. They also make it easier for others to share your content.

Learn more about content strategy

  • Our content migration roadmap has recommendations on how to write good web content and migrate existing content during a website redesign.
  • The 18F Content Guide helps writers create content that’s easy to use.
  • Our user needs playbook offers ways to focus city websites on real users’ needs.
  • Learn from the UK’s Government Digital Service about how users read content.
  • Remove information that is no longer accurate. Remove old, irrelevant, pages regularly
  • Publish content on current issues; monitor social channels, local blogs and news sources to see what relevant conversations are happening and join in

Signs of Success

The information you publish is useful and relevant when:

  • Your written content is produced in HTML by default.
  • Your content is accurate, timely, and regularly reviewed.
  • You are using analytics to help decide how your website is organized
  • You have clear criteria around when to update, archive, and delete content.
  • Your content is free of jargon, written in plain language, and at an 8th grade reading level.
  • You are publishing content in the most common languages spoken in your community, in addition to English.

3. Using spaces and channels for participation

Use a variety of spaces and channels to meet people where they are

Many people don’t take part in traditional public meetings because they are held in spaces or at times that aren’t convenient or welcoming. To invite participation from everyone, you should use a variety of spaces and channels to meet people where they are. All forums, whether online or offline, should be accessible, safe, and welcoming.

Using channels effectively:

Use digital channels as well as offline meetings

Digital channels are important complements to offline meetings because:

  • Residents can participate whenever it is convenient for them.
  • People who can’t physically attend meetings (because of mobility, geography, or work and family constraints) can participate.
  • Young people (who are disproportionately heavy users of digital channels and often underrepresented) are more likely to participate.

Use digital participation channels with online video streaming so people can be informed and provide feedback. Promote your livestream with a hashtag for people to use on Twitter or Facebook. Having people participate with the same hashtag will create a conversation that can be found in one place.

Use the spaces your residents use

Don’t create digital channels on platforms if your residents aren’t using them. Learn about your residents’ digital behaviors by running an online resident survey. Ask questions about how residents access the internet, the devices they use, and the social media platforms they use. Use the survey data to prioritize the digital channels where you should be most active.

This also applies to in-person engagement. Use existing spaces instead of creating brand new ones. You can be as or more effective in expanding your reach by taking part in regular community events, instead of creating your own. For example:

  • Participate in a student government meeting to reach more students
  • Participate in a weekend hackathon to reach your local tech community
  • Set up a booth at the farmers market or outside a busy retail location is also a great place to find existing groups in your community organized by interest. Attending and taking part in Meetup groups can be a very effective way to meet new residents, discover interests, and get feedback. is also a great place to post meetings that your are hosting. The site gets a lot of traffic and posting events here will make them easier to find for a wider range of people. You can see how to post your events to Meetup here.

Use tools to meet people where they are

Not everyone will want to attend a public meeting or watch a livestream. Meet people where they are in their physical environment and make it easy for them to take part when it’s convenient for them. There are many tools you can use to engage people as they go about their daily life, including:

  • CityVoice: a place-based call-in system to collect community feedback on places (like vacant properties or public parks) using the telephone.
  • Textizen: a survey tool that uses text messaging to collect feedback about key issues. Read Textizen’s implementation guide to get started.

To get useful feedback, the questions you ask people using these channels is important. Find more information about how to craft a useful survey in the Productive Actions section of this toolkit.

Work with community partners to deliver your message

Hearing a message from a trusted voice rather than a stranger or a distant authority figure can make the message much more resonant. Consider developing neighborhood outreach programs like Philadelphia’s 311 Neighborhood Liaison program or Somerville, MA’s program to reach more immigrant residents. These kinds of programs create partnerships with trusted community figures to deliver authentic and relevant messages on your behalf.

Signs of success

You are using channels and spaces successfully when:

  • You are engaging with your residents using online and in-person channels
  • You understand which channels your residents use, and meet them on those channels
  • The kinds of feedback from online and in-person channels is consistent and can be compared

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:

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.

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.

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.

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 started 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

5. Creating useful feedback loops

Connect your community with the result of their participation

Your community needs to know that their feedback was valued and what the result was of their participation. By creating useful feedback loops, you can build meaningful, trusting relationships with residents.

Creating the feedback loop:

Express appreciation and communicate next steps

Nobody wants to feel like their input has gone into a black hole. At the end of each interaction, clearly outline what you plan to do with the feedback and any next steps. Acknowledge and appreciate the time given to participate.

Show things instead of talking about them

When a resident takes part in building or making something, they can immediately see the result of their action. For example, residents who participate in a Civic User Testing Group exercise see their feedback incorporated into a web page or service redesign, understand that their participation was meaningful and a good use of their time.

Keep communication open

Find times to send residents news and information about the topics you’ve discussed with them. Ask residents if they’re willing to give their email address or phone number so you can keep them up to date. Tools like Textizen let you send follow-up messages to residents who take surveys. You can also send emails with tools like Mailchimp that come equipped with analytics you can use to understand how people interact with the emails you send.

Collect feedback and make it public

Share feedback publicly so residents can see how their whole community responded. Being transparent like this builds trust and builds consensus about how the community’s input helped you make your decision.

Additional recommendations and tools

Create a community

There are people in many different roles across government whose job includes managing civic engagement processes. Create a community of these employees so you can create standards for engagement across government and so they can share what they’ve learned about best practices, tools, and past results.

Iterate, iterate, iterate

Agile project management is a way of managing projects that uses data to make decisions and regularly making changes to improve effectiveness. Many engagement processes fail because an approach is decided entirely before the process begins. When participation doesn’t match expectations or goals it becomes very hard to change direction. By using an iterative or agile approach, you can make regular changes to your plan based on what the data tells you is most effective. This is why setting baselines and goals at the start of your project is important, as well as ongoing data collection, so you can understand what works and what doesn’t. You can find more about how to use agile management in government here.

More useful tools

  • SimpliCity: a tool developed by the City of Asheville, NC to help residents understand all the things -- from zoning to crime -- happening in a resident’s interest area. (Access the code base)
  • RecordTrac: a website that streamlines the public record request process for both requestors and government staffers. Its use of transparency around the request fulfillment process is a good example of how technology can encode and automate feedback loops. (Access the code base)

All of these tools are available for use by any government.