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An emerging tool for government-community engagement
January 29, 2013
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It's hard some times to see the forest from the trees, particularly if you are in the deep weeds of daily government or organization communications. But one big thing that is happening in our world is the expectation of engagement. That is participation. That is being part of decisions. That is being listened to and adjusting decisions based on what is being heard. 

I've given some presentations to utilities about engagement. I point out Bank of America, Verizon, US Congress, Instagram, Netflix, Komen Foundation, Gap and others all who have run into crises because of lack of engagement. Not sure what I mean? Congress tried to pass SOPA and PIPA, intellectual property protections on the Internet, without properly engaging some very key stakeholders. The backlash turned into a stare-down between "the Internet" and Senator Reid. Reid blinked. Bank of America tried to implement a debit card fee, in part of make up for added costs from regulation. They didn't engage some important people--customers. Big issue, big black eye for the bank, no fee. Komen, well they made some funding decisions without engagement. They're still trying to recover. Netflix retooled its business model decoupling DVD and streaming with a price increase. Reasonable, but they didn't engage. They're still recovering.

How did this happen? How did we go from a world where people in powerful chairs used to making decisions that make sense to them suddenly find themselves in deep doo doo and having to back down? Like almost everything else, blame the Internet. These communication tools create a sense of intimacy with the entities and organizations that impact our lives. Chief Boyd has captured that idea as it relates to emergency management when he says "it's not our emergency." But, that needs to be expanded: "it's not our business decision, it's not our policy decision, it's not even our agency or organization." 

Today it's not enough to hold a public hearing on a controversial siting issue. Engagement is much more involved than that. One major public utility established a very comprehensive many-element engagement process before proposing a significant rate hike. Unlike previous ones that were filled with tension and controversy, the engagement process went far to gain understanding and smooth the way. (Let me know if you'd like more details on this.) One army base commander used a wide range of digital communication tools to conduct a town hall meeting with troops, retirees and family members half a globe away. This is engagement today.

All this to alert you to an intriguing new option for engagement. Textizen is a tool designed specifically to enable governments to engage their citizens. You create a simple survey and citizens can respond via text giving you real time feedback on important issues. Textizen recently won the Knight Foundation award of $350,000 which should help it make more penetration into the government market.

Of course, this is only one tool and one example. There are loads of online survey tools available, plus plenty of other ways to engage your stakeholders. The truth is today you can't rely on one method because people choose their own ways to engage and not everyone chooses the same. But, the point is, you no longer really have a choice of whether to engage or not. Of course, you could just prepare to back down.

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