Once you have your consultation set up, how do you get citizens to participate in large numbers? The greatest challenge is getting people to visit the consultation website. Once they are there, participation rates are high, from 15% to 35% in our experience. Here are some tips we learned from launching budget simulators in different municipalities.
Reach out to local media
In our experience, traffic rates to consultations closely follow mentions in local media. Announcing a new online consultation at a public meeting, with a corresponding press release, can generate significant local media coverage that will drive traffic to the consultation website. Towards the end of the consultation period, issuing another press release, announcing which proposals are receiving the most and least support and reminding citizens of the approaching deadline, can stimulate a second round of media attention and public participation.
You might also consider reaching out to community groups, local bloggers and forums.
“Cross-sell” the consultation
When a citizen uses a municipal service or attends a public event, it’s an opportunity to invite them to participate in your consultation. Here are some methods that work:
Put up posters and offer information cards at service points
Promote the consultation on flyers and notice boards
Set the default home page on public library computers to the consultation website
Collect responses at public events on tablet computers, like the iPad
Link to the consultation prominently from the municipality’s home page
End interactions with residents at service counters or over the phone by mentioning the consultation
It’s important to note that many residents will never see your home page, because they used a search engine to go directly to the waste collection schedule, for example. In that case, it’s a good idea to promote the consultation on your most visited web pages as well.
Some of our past clients have offered a prize, such as a gift card, from a draw of all participants. Alternatively, you could offer a reward to a randomly selected participant, or the participant who shares the consultation the most.
Mobilize existing networks
A municipality and its elected officials should promote the consultation through their existing networks. It’s important to get elected officials behind the consultation, as they often have large personal networks. Consider promoting your consultation through other existing outreach initiatives whether via a online engagement plan, town halls or public meetings.
Include the consultation in a regular newsletter
Use Facebook and Twitter to regularly remind followers to participate
Email the list of participants in previous online consultations
Social media is particularly important: in 2011 and 2012, a quarter of traffic to the Plateau Mont-Royal’s online budget simulator came from Facebook alone.
Make it easy to share
Consultations that are easier to share receive more participation. Citizen Budget, for example, creates an individual page for each participant that displays their budget choices. These pages have unique links that can be shared on social media and with friends and family.
Follow up with residents
After a resident participates, send a follow-up email to confirm that their input has been received and will be considered. Explain how the results of the consultation will influence decision-making and mention other opportunities to engage, such as upcoming public meetings. This simple step assures residents that participation is worthwhile; it can strengthen their commitment to the municipality and increase their interest in future consultations.