The article I read, “Governing by Video Game“, is about ways that gamification concepts have been utilized by government – and whether it actually increases (or in itself represents) an increase in “engagement”.

Some of gamification concepts are “Tinder-like”, where residents can provide quick feedback on different civic-type ideas (like, what should we do with the “Pit of Despair”) – kind of in the same vein as the City’s Open City Hall surveys. Boston has a program that takes “microdata” from citizens on a daily basis to see how things like crime, trash pickup, transit etc are going.

There are also some more controversial implementations of this concept: “The Chinese city of Suining uses gamification by rewarding or deducting points according to citizens’ social behavior. Depending on their overall grade, they could be prioritized for a new job or denied access to some social services. The Chinese government is also planning to launch its Social Credit System, where virtual points determine real-world job prospects and social status on a far wider scale.”

My takeaways (and tying back to Asheville / Buncombe County):

Gamification is definitely an early-stage concept for government, and this article didn’t show me any models that felt particularly exciting / powerful.

More than anything, I worry that these concepts, like the City’s “Open City Hall” surveys, take a significant amount of resources to utilize, and allow government to kind of “push poll” citizens to rubber-stamp what staff or policymakers already want to do. These gamification concepts also don’t seem effective in building lasting engagement with communities that are already “unheard” or ignored.

In some ways though – this article brings me back to how I often feel about “engagement efforts” in general – the issue isn’t that we’re lacking a specific tool, or a specific way to “broadcast” an opportunity for input.

Rather, the problem is that local government remains hesitant to provide true power to residents – and even when they do try, they’re still quite bad at it. Perhaps that’s partially due to lack of experience, or perhaps there are still internal conflicts around whether the public can be trusted to “drive” the process as opposed to the typical model of leaving it to the “experts.”

We rarely “co-design” or problem solve together – we still hold “engagement” sessions after decisions have been made, and the process is completely different for every single project or initiative that the City or County conducts. The lack of consistency in process (and in the true amount of power citizens have to affect outcomes) harms both engagement and trust in local government in general.

From the article: “In any relationship, he says, an element of trust is required to enable meaningful engagement.”

I would take it a step further, and say that trust and meaningful engagement can only be maintained if the process itself is a worthwhile use of people’s time. Don’t ask people to take time off work, find childcare, and more – to show up for a public engagement process that doesn’t provide any true power to influence the outcome. Local government needs to become more cognizant of the significant sacrifices required to participate (or, on the flip side – the significant privilege that allows some to participate more easily).

Respect people’s time, reduce barriers to access – and those who can make the sacrifices necessary to particate will be more likely to do so. But more than anything, government needs to make showing up matter if they expect people to show up.

If you made it this far, out of curiosity, I had three questions for discussion:

  • Have you participated in a City or County “public engagement” process?
  • Did it feel like the meeting / workshop / session was worth your time?
  • Did you feel like you were able to provide input, and did it make a difference in the final outcome?

Thanks for reading!