Last week, Dave Briggs, a long-time commentator at the intersection of government and technology and recently the founder of UK-based Kind of Digital, kicked off what has turned out to be a very productive discussion: The need for micro-participation (that’s the original blog post, though the majority of comments seem to have come in via Govloop).

From the article (emphasis mine):

A theme I’ve been returning to on a regular basis in the talks I’ve been giving lately has been about the need for government to make participation easier.

[…]

Perhaps there’s an opportunity here to learn from the micro-volunteering that is becoming increasingly popular. An easy, quick way to get involved in civic activity that fits into people’s lives the way they are lived now, not fifty years ago.

After all, I may not be able to give up two (or more!) hours of an evening to attend a council meeting, but I’m sat in front of a computer almost all day, and could easily take 15 minutes or longer out to get involved, perhaps by answering some questions, providing ideas, or identifying problems.

Even better, with a smartphone and a bit of geo-tagging, why not tell me how I can contribute from exactly where I am?

Getting involved and participating shouldn’t be a chore. As I mentioned in my post about councillors, we need more people doing less, rather than the situation we have now where only a few people do far too much.

Lowering the barriers to public participation is a topic that matters. Though I didn’t use the exact same term then, here’s how I framed the concept of micro-participation back in late 2009 in a comment on the PEP-NET blog:

Providing better low-level or “drive-by” participation opportunities whereby citizens can make (many) small yet valuable contributions without having to be involved over the full length of a participation project.

Various definitions are currently being proposed, but they all generally tend to cover the following indicators:

  • Can be done alone (individual rather than group action)
  • Short (takes little time to complete, requires only a short attention span)
  • Easy (low level of difficulty)
  • No overhead (requires little or no instructions, prep work, learning etc.)
  • Independent (only very loosely tied to other activities or participants)
  • Immediate (instant results upon task completion)

Before I get into the question of how this concept might be applied to online consultations, it’s time to be reminded once again that the term participation means different things to different people. While it’s often applied fairly broadly to include all kinds of processes that fall into the “civic engagement” category (individual and collective actions designed to identify and address issues of public concern), I’m referring to the considerably more narrow “public participation” (involving people in decisions that affect them).

With regard to online consultations (a certain form of public participation), there is tremendous potential for micro-participation. If these types of easy, convenient activities can actually be offered as part of the overall process, they promise to make participation more attractive and broaden overall reach. The reason micro-participation looks so appealing is precisely because it avoids a lot of the aspects that can make participation seem cumbersome at times (the need to be engaged over a long period of time, the energy required to digest lots of briefing materials, working off a pre-determined or inconvenient schedule or interacting with strangers, to name just a few).

Some activities that would presumably work well in a micro context include:

  • Express personal values that should drive the decision making process
  • Express key concerns
  • Ask questions
  • Submit ideas (brainstorming)
  • Prioritize, rate or rank items

However, it’s clear that not all processes within a consultation lend themselves to a micro approach. Dialogue and deliberation take time and energy. They require a certain level of focus and attention and usually considerable information and learning efforts beforehand.

In order to increase the likelihood of micro-participation to occur, conveners can do three things:

  • Explicitly invite participants to indicate their availability and preferred level of commitment
  • Identify or create consultation activities that are suitable for micro-contributions
  • Facilitate matchmaking between these activities and the available resources (participants)

I’m sure someone somewhere has already tried this. Let’s hope a lot of interesting things will surface at Dave’s new site: microparticipation.com