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Do's and Don'ts for Civic Engagement: A Q&A with the U.S. Federal SocialGov Community Lead

The General Services Administration's SocialGov Lead Justin Herman stresses citizen outreach and accountability for government civic engagement campaigns.

Justin Herman, General Services Administration SocialGov Lead.
Justin Herman, General Services Administration SocialGov Lead.
Jason Shueh
As the federal government’s expert on civic engagement, Justin Herman has a few tips for agencies and officials of all stripes.

His advice stems from his time as the U.S. Federal SocialGov Community Lead. In this role, at the General Services Administration’s Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies, he coordinates civic engagement initiatives in more than 170 government organizations. Some of his projects in 2015 include putting federal agencies on Yelp for citizen reviews, creating the first U.S. Public Participation Playbook for agencies, and developing the third edition of the U.S. National Action Plan for Open Government.

In an interview with Government Technology at the Massachusetts Digital Government Summit held in Boston this month, Herman shared a few do's and don’ts for civic engagement. Watch highlights in the video above or get full details from the interview below.

Government Technology: What are some key services that civic engagement can provide agencies?

Justin Herman, GSA SocialGov Lead: Well, I would say that the key services agencies can deliver through citizen engagement is all of them. Whether it’s emergency management, access to better student loan information, veterans' health — I mean, you run down the entire gamut of citizen services and there are none that can’t be improved with better engagement, more meaningful engagement, with citizens. The question is then, with different individual [agency] missions, how are we going to provide those practices in the most meaningful way to create the best impact?

GT: What are some ways jurisdictions can identify issues to create public engagement campaigns?

Herman: It’s always great to start at the top. Every community in the United States, whether it’s state, local community or agencies at the national level, are going to have a different way they can make an impact with citizens. That’s why we say start by listening. Find out what are those critical things, those important things that can make citizens realize, “Hey, these agencies are listening, and if I respond to them, if I share with them, that participation is going to create change, a positive change in my life." If an agency can’t draw that parallel, it should go back to the drawing board. Because I’ll tell you, citizens are wanting to share with you — it’s a matter of: Are you listening?

GT: What are some civic engagement metrics cities or agencies might use to set goals?

Herman: When setting civic engagement goals, always start at the top, which is, again, done by listening. Citizens will let you know, either in indirect or direct ways, what are the things that are most important to them, what are the things they’re looking for help on. One of the worst things an agency can do is to say, “I already know what a citizen wants,” even before they ask for it. One of the worst things an agency can do is provide time and resources to a solution that citizens don’t need and didn’t ask for. That’s why we tell programs, municipalities and agencies to start by listening, because then you’re matching your time, and you're matching your resources with a goal that you already know is out there.

GT: Probably one of the things officials and civic tech advocates might want to know is what should not be done in civic engagement. As you know, there is a lot of fear of missteps, so if you had to say two or three things not to do, what would they be?

Herman: Things not to do when starting a civic engagement program is betray the trust that you have. Because if you ask people to engage with you and people are spending their time and energy and buying into a process, the worst thing you can do is leave them hanging there, either by not responding, or another worst thing, by not sharing how you're going to act on the information and not being transparent. Because again, once you ask for someone to be part of a process, and you betray that trust, they’re not going to come back again.

GT: The GSA recently formed a partnership with Yelp to allow citizens to review federal agencies and give feedback. Can you speak a little more about that and how the endeavor has helped agencies?

Herman: The fantastic thing about Yelp changing its terms of service, which allows federal agencies to use it [by cutting out advertising on profile pages], is that for agencies that want to test out public engagement programs, they have another platform to do it. But that being said, it’s one of 80 platforms that also have similar terms of service agreements with government. So the whole point is that if you're an agency that wants to give a greater voice to citizens, get better feedback, you have plenty of free options to test it out. If it doesn’t work, you can go onto something else and learn from that experience, to use the data from that and improve your own program. If it works, fantastic, because it’s a free tool and now, perhaps if you put some investment of time and energy, you can go that path. That’s one of the things we do at GSA, is we work with these companies like Yelp who then make the terms of service available so government agencies and programs have a myriad of different choices in order to test out what works and what doesn’t work. 

GT: You just launched the first U.S. Public Participation Playbook to help government better engage with citizens, what was the development process like to create a guide like that?

Herman: Well it was interesting, when we first approached the U.S. Public Participation Playbook, which was called for in the U.S. National Action Plan for Open Government, we wanted to combine best practices with performance metrics that any agency can use in order to evaluate and build better public engagement programs. However, I think the story of how it was built is as good as the product that’s in the playbook itself. Because we started by going to 30 federal managers and asked them, “What would it take for you to actually use a resource like this?” And it was a little bit of a stretch because agencies, like companies, can get a little bit nervous about opening that level of engagement. But by the end of the process, we had more than 70 federal partners involved from 40 agencies, which if you go to the website, one of the things we're most proud of is how many agency seals are on it. The process just became more open and collaborative as it went, and in the end, this was something that people got behind. So now we’re going back — and using all the feedback — and we’re going to put out a new version so federal agencies can use it to evaluate their programs and publicly report the outcomes of that. It’s going to be a very exciting year coming up for us.

GT: That kind of dovetails into the next question I’m going to ask you about: What are you most excited about in the coming year and beyond?

Herman: I think the most exciting thing, and I’ve been doing this job for three and a half years now, is not just what we’re doing, but the scope of our impact. Yes, we’re working with social media tools, and yes, we’re talking about engaging with citizens, but the scope is increasing. It’s taking lessons learned from that collaborative environment, that open environment — that are not just creating government programs that are connecting citizens and government better — but is also being applied to connecting government agencies better and offices within themselves. So there’s a three-tier approach to that. And so digital engagement and citizen engagement isn’t just fueling better programs, those lessons are being used to create an entire collaborative government across the board. That’s what’s really exciting, is this larger scope that asks how we can partner with the open data community, with the security community, with all these different programs that before you would have never thought were going to learn these lessons. And we can learn back from them, that’s what’s incredibly exciting. I don’t know what’s around the corner in that sense, it’s the million-dollar question.

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.