Sustainable Cities Collective has re-launched as Smart Cities Dive! Click here to learn more!

Explaining Civic Engagement in Two Equations

Anthea Watson Strong has written a great piece on the levers of civic engagement. Her inspiration comes from a 1968 paper, "The Calculus of Voting" by William Riker and Peter Ordeshook, that examined motivating factors related to voting behavior.

Anthea frames voting as a civic activity, and breaks down the main levers as probability, benefit, civic duty and cost. Each of these levers is subject to change and intervention, and in a fascinating way explain tactics by both political parties on both sides of the equation.

While the equation originally focused on voting, she explains how the equations can also fit other civic activity and public engagement. Anthea suggests thinking about the variables and ways to reduce the cost of civic action on the right side of the equation while increasing the factors on the left side for more meaningful public participation.

However, this one equation does not capture many of the people public sector staff routinely encounter. There is a more vocal group that doesn't see a benefit to, say, a new mixed-use development or light rail line. Instead, they see harm. In general, the opposition has their own equation that goes something like this:


Harm is a hugely motivating factor for getting turnout. This is true even when a local Commission has signaled strong support for a development project (i.e. where the probability residents can change the decision are low). 

Some of the opposition or push-back can depend on other motivating factors. For example, neighbors adjacent to a site have a large motivating factor (or x) while residents three blocks down won't feel the same degree of impact. Likewise, some nearby neighbors may see a lower "x" when mitigation measures like buffering or better building materials can be installed.

Which leads us to the lever aspects of each variable in the equations: what can we mitigate or improve?

P – Anthea details how civic persuasion can take a page from bundling political donations.  Each donation may be small, but when bundled, create a force. Likewise, she notes ways local groups "bundle" opinions to create a stronger message. This is a growing field worth watching and innovating as social media and online petitions join old-fashioned letter writing campaigns for influence. Of course this can cut both ways for and against a public investment. However, it's important to understand the new era of civic bundling.

B – Local governments need to increase their savvy when communicating benefits. We have a great local example with a streetcar line. Arlington, Virginia touts the streetcar's benefits of increasing affordable housing, faster rides and economic development. Though beneficial, the most persuasive points among my peers explain how these lines connect to a larger transit and investment future. Travel time between streetcar stations was less persuasive than a future where someone in south Arlington could easily travel to the District of Columbia (a journey that now requires a car or several buses).

H – The planning professions often treats impacts as these little bombs waiting to go off.  It's frustrating to watch how officials avoid detonation by avoiding the topic – or by attempting to verbally defuse the bombs with platitudes. Instead, the planning profession needs to address impacts head on and admit that many investments that are a "B" for the larger community can have disproportionate "H" in a project's proximity.

Several colleagues of mine and I are focusing on density and neighborhoods, since developers cite opposition as one of the top two challenges (the other being financing).  Daniel Parolek from Opticos Design in California works with neighborhoods and the "missing middle" of housing types.

M- Understanding motivation requires getting into the life of constituents. Some motivation is clear, for the example residents living next to a large redevelopment site. In other cases, you need to get inside the head of stakeholders to see what is driving them (not what you think is driving them). This is also where segmenting stakeholders by "x" can also help focus resources where they are needed.  At GreaterPlaces, we are examining applications of design thinking and service design to better understand stakeholders, their neighborhoods, their fears, and their motivations.

The equation approach is not perfect; it will not solve every problem or automatically open communities up to acceptance of investment and change.  But if we can better describe the categories of what drives engagement and participation, perhaps we can do a better job with each variable and the hundreds of opportunities that lie as we improve public participation.

Please use the comments section to give insight on your levers and equations.