I’m obsessed with the design principles Deena Rosen wrote in her capacity as UX director for Opower.  The principles describe how Deena uses design and behavior science to build tools that encourage people to make choices that reduce their impact on the environment.  

Civic Innovation needs to learn from these kinds of efforts and adopt behavioral science based practices.  The internet and most of the consumer facing technology industry is optimized for entertainment and commerce.  People seek out and want to engage with products that supply a need or entertain them in some fashion.  Conversely, it’s not actually a rational behavior to engage in civic activity.  The likelihood that one person’s actions will change the outcome of a governmental decision is so small, it might as well be zero.  

Our users have busy lives.  The kids need to be picked up from day care.  Someone needs to get the car’s oil changed.  Great Aunt Gertrude is back in the hospital, and it would be nice to go visit her.  If a user’s question to her representative or comment on a budgeting plan is very unlikely to impact the outcome, why would she take the time to ask the question or submit the comment?

Be honest, if civic innovation wasn’t your profession, how engaged would you be in the day-to-day activities of your local government?

In the collective, we are all better off if we participate in our communities and provide oversight and feedback to those who represent us.  The challenge of relevancy is one Deena faces at Opower as well.  Individually, turning down my thermostat won’t reduce the damage caused by global climate change, but collectively a reduction in the amount of energy we use to heat our houses can make a big difference.  

At Opower, Deena’s team uses normative comparison, social proof, loss language, defaults, and user commitment to encourage user behavior that’s good for us as a community. The Civic Engagement community could do this as well!  There are well-known tactics we could adopt to encourage users to do the right thing.

Except, there’s a big problem.  The Civic Innovation ecosystem doesn’t actually agree on the desired outcomes.  We don’t agree on the metrics for success.  Are we trying to increase the amount of interaction between residents and their elected representatives?  Are we trying to increase the flexibility of opinions tolerated by the electorate?  Are we trying to maximize the amount of information users consume before they form an opinion and take an action?

Without agreement on these metrics, we’ll be blocked from using the kinds of techniques that will help us overcome the problems associated with getting users to care about civic issues in the collective.  It’s time to get real about forming a theory of change.

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