If you build government digital services, you likely feel strongly that services should be tested and reviewed by end users. And perhaps you’ve also experienced a sinking feeling upon realizing that a  particular set of voices was missing from your public input process. For now, we’re going to focus on one nebulous category: youth.

When youth engagement is done well, it can create digital government champions who will continue to partner with the public sector and will spread the word about effective government services. If done poorly or half-heartedly, we risk creating disillusionment that may never be reversed.

But First, Definitions

According to the OECD Recommendation of the Council on Digital Government Strategies, digital government refers to “the use of digital technologies, as an integrated part of governments’ modernization strategies, to create public value”. This includes the use of technology to deliver services and information to residents as well as the ongoing modernization of government systems to respond to emerging technologies and rising expectations from end users. Let’s use residents, rather than citizens, in an attempt to include everyone who needs to access government services, while recognizing that residents is also an imperfect term.

For this discussion, we’ll define youth as being between the ages of 18-35. While terms like “youth” or “young people” may be used to describe this massive segment, it is important to underscore that youth are not a monolith. They encompass a broad group of folks with intersectional identities which impact how they experience of government services. A process for getting a driver’s license may be painless for an able-bodied cisgender person in a suburban area, but completely fail a newcomer with mobility challenges in an urban area, for example.

Meaningful Engagement

Digital government professionals should be looking to do more than just check a box; engagement efforts need to be meaningful and create a sense of ongoing reciprocity. Meaningful engagement builds and solidifies trust by reinforcing that the needs and concerns of residents are driving digital service delivery.

Sherry R. Arnstein’s Ladder of Citizen Participation provides a visual representation of the gradations of resident engagement and involvement. The higher the rung of the ladder, the greater the amount of power that residents hold. If you’ve attended an open house for a forthcoming condo development in your neighbourhood, perhaps you’ve experienced one of the rungs known as tokenism: placation, consultation or even just informing.  The strategies recommended below aim to be partnerships.  In our context, the partnership level results in digital government services that are created, implemented and maintained by public servants, but decisions are driven by the results of extensive and ongoing public consultation.

Figure 1, A Ladder of Citizen. Participation Source: Arnstein

Barriers to Meaningful Youth Engagement

  • Low trust in government, reinforced by negative experiences
  • Ineligibility to vote and lack of clarity about ways to participate
  • Perceived disinterest due to not reading traditional news/low voter turnout
  • Absence of K-12 civic literacy education
  • Lack of time due to school, work, community and family commitments
  • Formal and inflexible structures in civic engagement processes, such as 60 minute user interviews during daytime hours
  • Negative sterotyping of engaged youth (Greta Thunburg, more radical youth-led movements)

Strategies for Your Digital Engagement Toolbox

  • Instead of formal user interviews, try lower barrier asynchronous methods, such as unmoderated usability tests, for gathering feedback and UX intelligence.
  • Form a Youth Advisory Council focused on digital government initiatives (and compensate members for their time!).
  • Social media outreach may breed just the usual suspects; be wary of focusing your resources on the feedback and input from these low-investment engagement activities.
  • Partner with youth-serving organizations, or, even better, with organizations that specialize in conducting engagement with youth, such as Apathy is Boring, CityHive or youth.gov.
  • Use demographic data about the youth your digital government initiative will serve to compare the participants in your engagement pool against the actual pool of potential users. Name the discrepancies amongst your working group and be intentional about correcting them.
  • Whenever possible, allocate a dedicated Youth Engagement Director for youth efforts so that they can champion the creation of a strategy and monitor and evaluation results.
  • Provide a timeline for every digital government engagement cycle that clearly shows the public which opportunities will be available, and when. Digital goverment engagement often follow extensive policy engagement, and engagement fatigue is a real risk that needs to be mitigated! Suppose a particular group has been consulted at length about the details of a new policy or program. In this case, they may not have the will or resources to continue to participate in the further development of digital services that will support the implementation of that policy or program.
  • Assume that youth also access government services on behalf of family members with language or accessibility needs. Ask them about these experiences, too.
  • Determine a method of reporting back on engagement findings to youth, and communicate this to them in advance. Then continuously update them on what is being discussed and explored by your engagement team; don’t wait for project milestones to communicate back.

Building trust amongst youth is an excellent way to ensure buy-in for future digital government initiatives. Meaningful engagement during the design phase of services can nourish future engagement while also contributing to a more effective digital service. The first of many steps in this direction is for our digital leaders to recognize the size and gravity of this looming challenge, and that youth want to harness their ambitions to change the world and need support with tools to empower them to focus on local engagement. Winning their trust will require a digital plan to include more young people and listen more closely to their concerns. Finding ways to engage with youth to increase the benefit they provide to communities is paramount, now.

Image Credit: Zoey Li / Midjourney

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