Public engagement: crap apps, Lego, conversation and politicians

Aug 3, 2017

Public engagement is something all public services do, and many do badly.

This is an opinion piece on crap apps, and what makes useful public consultation, along with some genuine questions about the role of the politicians, that you might be able to help me understand.

Standard public engagement

I’m all for technology and advancing communication and engagement online.  But when you take a half-baked idea and make it digital, that makes me sad.

This, I’m afraid, is my feeling on public engagement apps of this sort:

Public engagement

It’s a typical kind of initiative that I see all the time in the UK, US and other places (yes I’m a local government nerd).

The old days of public engagement

Early in my career I was involved in a similar council budget consultation that had been devised to let the public decide what should be spent where. 

We went out in a trailer to towns and citizens were given a certain amount of Lego. Then they had to allocate the bricks into pots labelled by department: education, highways, social services, environmental health, waste and recycling, democratic services, etc.

The trouble was, as people ran out of bricks, they’d make quick decisions.

“I don’t have kids, I don’t care so much about schools, so I’ll take my bricks from education and put them into social care”. 

“A pot hole damaged my tyre so I’m putting loads into highways”.

“Why do we need money for democratic services, when that money could be spent on picking my bins up more regularly?’

No matter what we think about these comments (don’t get me started), the point is that it isn’t a very productive exercise.

  1. These sort of games raise the expectations of people who participate, that their view will be implemented into policy. I mean, perhaps if lots of people have the same thought, the trend will influence decisions, but things won’t be as that individual specifically wants it. So those involved will be disappointed with the outcome.
  2. We all have lives to live and can’t afford the time or mental capacity to be experts in the hundreds of services and techniques it takes to ensure a community is thriving. The task simplifies the work of public services in a way that demeans everyone – it’s not about splitting up a pot of cash and letting it all sort itself out.
  3. The most vital way this sucks though, is that it’s not in any way meaningful or lasting. These kind of apps come from a focus on what people think about the organisation, not a desire to understand citizens and their lives better in order to implement more effective services. No proper conversation takes place about how each decision will impact on other areas, and how we cater for people who live in the same area who may have different needs to our own. For example, chatting through how if you don’t have kids, and schools are awful, you’re damning yourself and your community to a new generation of disaffected, underprivileged young adults. As a citizen, there’s no explaining to someone responsible for public services, exactly what has happened to you, helping that public servant see the impact of their work on real lives.

Conversations matter.

I know that public services are strapped for cash and have little time.  But a simplistic tool like this doesn’t work.  Just collecting data about people’s preferences doesn’t solve problems.

Meeting people, or talking to them online – that takes time and skill.  There are so many people, and we can all be challenging, angry, misinformed. But starting to have proper conversations changes the thinking and understanding of citizens – and people who work for public services – and makes what we do feel more real.

Whether verbal or typed text on a screen, we can choose to really listen, and properly explain.

And, if people are using a website to ‘have their say’, they don’t have a sense of who they are talking to. They’re unlikely to have their mind changed by new information, to come up with a useful solution, or to feel illuminated by another perspective.

Is engagement with buttons and graphics on a screen as good as engaging with a person – in real life, on Skype, or by direct message?

The problem is, talking is not easy for an organisation, not like just letting people play with an app or some Lego. But it does engage.

The solution – politicians?

I’m not going to say I know exactly what’s the best alternative.

Currently, I suggest that skilled communications experts help employees in organisations find and introduce themselves to digital and real-life forums and groups.

We then coach colleagues in listening and asking in interest groups: like the local cancer support group on Facebook, or those business breakfasts in hotels where everyone is selling to each other, or a ‘local talk’ thread on Mumsnet.

Whatever the issues are contained in the work we’re consulting on, there will be relevant interest groups that are open to productive conversations, who tell their stories and provide useful context for complex decisions.

It takes a lot of effort, compared to asking people to come to your website, app – meeting the organisation on its own terms. The information gleaned from chats are harder to process, compared to getting some data from people using software. How will we find the time?

…But hang on, isn’t this the role of the politician?

To understand the concerns of people in the community and represent them in decision making and in the work of the organisation?

My perception is that many politicians are more likely to just deal with the case work that comes to them, rather than actively seek conversation with those not politically engaged.

Do politicians get adequate public engagement training on how to question and elicit information from citizens?  Do they get to test new interview techniques and borrow from the work of user testers and service designers? Can they use this information to inspire, motivate and lead?

These are genuine questions – do they? Can they? Should they?


  1. kriswith

    Budget simulators have their place amongst the tools we use but my best experience of them came from using it to support facilitated group work. Small groups were tasked with balancing the budget using the simulator. The simulator included potential consequences for their decisions, like services failing and legal action. Someone moving lego bricks around doesn’t get this information and as a result most results look similar – take money out of staff/councillor salaries/pensions and shut services no one knows about.
    In terms of using politicians the main stumbling block is that they are not in a neutral or objective position. They are going to be tasked with either defending or attacking the administration, and either defending or attacking government decisions. That means any conversations with the public will be seen through those prisms; ‘it’s all the governments fault’ or ‘it’s all the council leader’s fault’. That will not only skew the data that comes back but will also turn the conversation from the choices we are actually faced with to ones that aren’t even anything to do with the council. Lots of councillors are also community activists so have the skills to engage publicly but not all do, so even coverage is also a challenge.
    The key is not to think there is a single golden bullet that can reach everyone; you have to understand what mechanisms already exist in the area, tap into them and then make adjustments to reach communities where there are gaps. It isn’t easy and sometimes it isn’t cheap but the consequences of getting it wrong can be so severe that investing is not just doing the right thing, it is sensible risk management.

  2. andrewecoulson

    Great piece Helen, something that someone had to say. Something I’ve been banging on about for a while. Also after this the need and ability to continue these relationships/conversations beyond the ‘consultation’ is desperately needed to build understanding and trust.

  3. Jay Dawkins

    Nailed it! First time I’ve seen your blog, Hel, but this resonates a ton. Building increasingly complex widgets will not bring understanding of the people we serve. It takes real connection.

    Technology and initiatives like the one you mentioned can certainly help us reach people, and create opportunities to bring more people into the conversation. But that takes ongoing effort or the infrastructure to organize those contacts and re-engage them, something we don’t see very often.

    Look forward to reading more, thanks for providing leadership on this topic!



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Hel Reynolds

Hel Reynolds

Author of this post

Hel is social media trainer and boss of Comms Creatives. She has been working in comms since 2005, and has been brushing up her expertise in social media for brands since the good old days of MySpace. She also draws the Comms Cartoons, and is usually attached to a mug of coffee.

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