When we talked to over 100 agencies about their goals for improving their public engagement activities, increasing participation rates came out #1. That was enough to motivate us to look into motivation. We did some research into the most important motivators for civic engagement and here is what we learned.

1. Fear

It turns out that fear is the most motivating force for civic engagement. Any first-year psychology student will confirm this finding. As Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs teaches us: when something we care about is threatened, we act.

We see evidence of this phenomenon everywhere. Voter turnout spikes when things get ugly. Public meetings get packed when new developments are proposed in people’s backyards. Of course for all these situations there are people who are in favor. They might even make up the majority, but they are seldom heard from because they are not as motivated. Satisfaction, happiness or even moderate concern are lousy motivators.

We will go to great lengths when our safety is threatened. When it comes to community planning, people become fearful when they perceive threats to their lifestyle and financial security. The same is true when the status quo is threatened (fear of the unknown).

Knowing the importance of this motivator is critical to coming up with effective calls to action and advertising for your community engagement activities. Consider what is at stake in the scope of your project and use that information to attract your community to participate. People are more concerned about immediate issues than longer term ones so these should be your focus even if it’s a long range plan on the table.

2. Herd Mentality

Next up on Maslow’s Hierarchy is our strong need for belonging. We found that the second most important motivator for civic engagement is what we refer to as herd mentality or “all the cool kids are doing it.” People engage when people they trust and respect engage.

Let’s face it – people often trust and respect their friends, colleagues and community leaders more than many government agencies. Anything you can do to encourage people to help you spread the word will pay off. On the surface, this seems like simply a strategy to have more people find out about the project. That’s true, but the more important factor is that when someone shares your project with their network, the call to action is now coming from them. This makes a huge difference when it comes to motivating action.

There are a few things you can do to make it easy for people to share. First, make sure that your content connects with strongly held values. People share things that align with their values. Secondly, incorporating social media sharing into your tools and event information so that people can share it with one click is critical. Thirdly, connecting with community leaders and special interest groups and making it easy for them to share your story with their networks is well worth the effort. Some of our clients have had great success using “share kits” which is essentially material that bloggers and community leaders can use to quickly cut and paste to create content for their tweets, newsletters and posts. They are always looking for content and the easier you make it for them to create a story, the better. Read more about promoting public participation here.

3. Sense of Power & Influence

The third most powerful motivator relates to control. If people feel that they will have a tangible influence over the outcome, they will be motivated to participate.

Before you design your engagement process and promotional material it’s important to get clear on what’s at stake in the project and what role community input will play in the outcome. Design your calls to action and promotional material to convey the biggest promise you can to the community about how they can control or shape the outcome.

It doesn’t end when the public engagement is over. A critical step is to circle back with the community after with a clear and powerful statement about how community input shaped the outcome. Some of our best projects have created infographics summarizing what the community’s input and how it influenced the final outcome. By getting this information out there quickly, you will be reinforcing the benefits of participating. These actions reinforce a culture of engagement and transparency that will benefit your agency for years to come.

4. Helping a Cause

Like the Lorax who speaks for the trees, the fourth most powerful motivator we found for civic engagement was altruism or helping a cause. Our values are critical motivators for action. Fundraisers and special interest groups know this well. It’s easy for planning agencies to talk to the community about infrastructure and policies because that’s what they know best. And yes, in most cases, that’s what the projects are about. If we dig a little further we can relate the project to strongly held values that can attract a broader community. Whether it’s protecting the environment or caring for the needs of the disadvantaged, tapping into the empathy, altruism and desire to protect the commons can be a powerful motivator.

Lowering the barriers

When people are motivated they will go to great lengths to participate. So the above motivators will help to dramatically increase participation. It’s also useful to recognize that we can increase participation by lowering the barriers.

When we lower the barriers to participation we are able to attract participants who are only moderately motivated and that’s often a good thing. In engagement activities that have high barriers (e.g. public meetings, online tools that require people to register,…), we tend to attract participants with an ax to grind because as described above, fear is a terrific motivator. These people are often the vocal minority.

If we lower the barriers (e.g. short, fun, easy and convenient activities,…) we open the participation to those who are less motivated. These folks often don’t have their minds already made up and have moderate views and perhaps some constructive input to offer. In most cases, these people are the silent majority. Read more about engaging the moderates in your community here.

In other words, if you feel like everyone is opposed to your project, perhaps your process is filtering out all but the most motivated. You might be surprised what you hear when you try a “low barrier” participation tool.

I hope these insights are helpful. I wish you all the best in your efforts to increase public participation. For more information on best practices for online public engagement check out our Public Involvement User Guide.

Now over to you. What did we miss? What have you seen in your work?