Neil Tambe

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I'm a Detroiter who happens to enjoy writing, national parks, orange juice, the performing arts, and fanciful socks. More than anything though, I aspire to be a good husband, father, and citizen.

Engaging John and Jane Doe - applying strategic change to citizen engagement

Engaging citizens in government seems like it'd be a funny venture because it's unlike engagement anywhere in the private sector (on the face, at least). You have to connect with people who are outside the walls of your organizations because citizens don't work for the government...making them sort of like customers. At the same time, citizens elect many leaders (or elect people who are appointed / confirmed by elected leaders) which kind of makes them like shareholders. Beyond that, when examining the values of our constitutional, democratic, republic, we are a country "by the people and for the people" implying that we are indeed a part of government to some degree, akin to employees.

Which makes engagement interesting: how do you (you meaning any type of political actor, which is confusing in itself) engage a constituent, who is a quasi-customer|employee|shareholder?

Well, let's apply some tricks from the strategic change playbook: let's understand the audiences, the message and topics to engage people in, and engagement vehicles.  For now, let's assume government is one entity and simply look at this situation as a one to many relationship, instead of a many to many relationship (i.e., there's one "government actor" and many different flavors of constituents).

As we go, I'll call out the action steps that would be required in truly developing a well thought out constituent engagement strategy.

The Audiences

Basically, this part is simple but really difficult to do. Understand who needs to be communicated with and what influences each of these groups. The short answer is that everybody needs to be communicated with about everything.  That's obviously not good enough because there's not enough time or money in the history of the world to do that, so let's break it down.

So, who needs to be communicated with? Well, pretty much everybody needs to be to some degree, but to get started how to make meaningful distinctions between constituent groups. In companies this is easy, one usually breaks down an employee populace into a few categories: role/function, location, and level. When speaking about constituents though, it's not so easy.

Action Item #1 - first, figure out how to make meaningful distinctions between constituents
I'm not some sort of political operative, but it's pretty plain to see how constituent groups are broken down today: race, geography, income-level, gender, and maybe some interest groups (conservationists, evangelicals, trial lawyers, etc.).

The trouble with this is there are a lot of different hats people wear and it's not always easy to see how folks' different identities intersect.  This is absolutely important to do, however, because it's really important to target messages based on who you're talking to.

Something that may be interesting to do is to create "personality profiles" which combine some of these identities / affinities into some clusters.  I'm guessing there's probably data to do this, or ways to have people choose which of their identities mean more to them than others (in fact, I know there are, for reasons I can't discuss on this blog).

Maybe there's a "soccer mom" profile, or a "suburban small business owner" profile that can be clustered.  Maybe there are about 50 other clusters that could be made. Obviously, there would be a lot of clusters but that's okay...we're talking about segmenting a nation of 330 million people.  And, having fifty clusters is much simpler than having combinations of characteristics across several different dimensions.

There are probably lots of ways to group constituents, I won't really get into the best ways to do that.

Action Item #2 - next, determine what makes each group tick
This is one of the easy ones, really listen to and learn about each constituent group.  What makes them tick? What influences them? How does their day run? What do they like and dislike? What's their culture. Once the audiences are identified you really have to understand them. This takes research and interaction.

The Message
Another important consideration to think about is what constituents need to be engaged in...meaning what do you have to communicate with them? This consideration slices two ways. First, what is the message/topic that constituents need to be engaged in. Second, how engaged does each group have to be at the end of it?

Action Item #3 - Determine what each constituent needs to know about | be engaged in.
This is a really important step, because it's never the case (I've never seen this circumstance, at least) that everyone needs to know a lot about everything. Providing information that's not relevant fatigues audiences and also causes confusion. Moreover, once you determine what each constituent group needs to know it's a lot easier to craft a clear message because you're suddenly aware of who your audience is and how they might conceptualize things in their mind*.

Now, in public affairs, this is very complicated because there are many different different topics and actions required of constituents. Moreover, to even index constituents with particular messages, you need to determine all the messages that are out there and which ones are really important to communicate. In other words, one has to figure out the entirety of what they want to say and what's really important and what isn't.

Action Item #4 - next, determine to what degree each constituent needs to be engaged
Constituents are not all created equally when it comes to communication. Obviously all constituents are important, but they all have different abilities to influence the outcome of a specific policy or program. And quite frankly, each constituent probably doesn't want to be completely engaged in everything. So, another step to take is determine the degree to which each constituent group needs to be communicated with.

Some constituents may need to be really engaged and supportive of something, whereas others may just need to be aware.  Some may need to have operational knowledge of something where as some need to be so well versed that they becomes spokespeople about the issue. Maps this out.

The vehicles
The last step (yes this really is and should be the last step) is to determine the vehicles with which you can communicate with constituents. Once you've done that, use all your knowledge to determine which vehicles should be used to communicate certain messages to which constituent group.

This is really important to be the last step, because without good data and thought behind it it's probably going to be very difficult to prioritize and sequence communications vehicles effectively.  Doing all this analysis on the front-end makes it a lot easier to target messages.

Action Item #5 - List out all the vehicles you could possible use to communicate with people
Here, start with existing vehicles.  There are probably lots of them: emails, mail, advertisements, twitter, facebook, townhalls, door knocking campaigns, church events, phone calls, text messages, a street team, etc.  There are lots.  Then, imagine new vehicles - maybe it's a bake sale, maybe it's a talent show...who knows. Your imagination is the limit to this.

One thing to note about communications vehicles is that it's super important to have vehicles which work in two directions - speaking and listening.

Action Item #6 - Match vehicles to each constituent groups and messages
Laying out your plan is the last step before execution. Match up each constituent and message to the best communication vehicle to communicate that message. When possible bundle messages and groups together (when they need the same message from the same vehicle).  That will minimize work for the communicator and the constituent.

When I started writing this post, I thought that it would be wildly different to think about communicating with constituents than it is with employees.  It's not.  The same planning and execution process exists. But it is different in that it's much, much more complicated. Which makes it all the more important to think through an engagement strategy for your constituency.

*- Also, this sort of goes without saying (and is the post for another message), but it's really important to craft a clear message.

Please do say hello: neil.tambe[at]gmail[dot]com