3 ways to improve citizen engagement with Millennials and Gen-Z
In mid-2020, American City & County (AC&C) surveyed our readers to gauge their habits and preferences in topic coverage and content delivery. One of the questions we asked concerned which subjects our readers would want to learn more about. We listed 33 local government-facing topics as choices.
Citizen engagement topped the list of choices in the results, with about 40 percent of respondents clamoring for more coverage of it.
As AC&C’s Associate Editor, it’s easy for me to see why. Of the many local government-facing issues I’ve covered over the past five years, citizen engagement—especially with Millennials and Gen-Z—has been one of the most confounding, tenacious and consequential ones.
But it’s also an issue that, more so than any other that I’ve written about at AC&C, has placed me in a particularly interesting position in covering it.
As a journalist, I’ve strived to inform local officials about how to address citizen engagement by illuminating best practices and spotlighting the exemplary efforts of other local governments through my work with AC&C.
But being 31 at the time of writing this, I’m not surprised that my generation and the generation after are barely involved with local government. I share my fellow Millennials’ ethos in questioning traditional behavior and institutions, and local government is an institution that’s mired in traditional behavior.
Here’s the thing, though: the desire for participation is there. Millennials and Gen-Z are open to getting involved with local government. But we want new ways of getting involved.
“In general, millennials have no patience for inefficiency, stodgy institutions or the status-quo. They look at things from a different lens. That’s what government needs,” Tim McManus, COO of the Partnership for Public Service, told government-focused social network GovLoop in 2013.
“But if agencies aren’t willing to make those kinds of tweaks, you will see Millennials enter the government and leave almost immediately,” McManus added.
Based on five years of reporting on local governments and five years of talking about my work with my friends and peers, I’m confident that local governments can attract Millennial and Gen-Z engagement by making three major moves. A government’s job is to serve its people and taking these measures will only help government serve its people better.
1) Give citizens a stronger voice, and make it easier for them to make a visible difference
Everyone’s time and effort are valuable. But growing up around computers, the internet and smartphones has made Millennials and Gen-Z accustomed to getting both goods and information quickly and efficiently since childhood.
That’s why Millennials and Gen-Z want assurance that, when applied to government, both our time and efforts will go a long way.
Accordingly, a key solution for increasing engagement with younger generations is to give citizens as strong of a voice as possible—enable us to make a measurable, visible difference by getting involved, while making that involvement easy for us to do.
There are a few ways that government can give citizens that voice, which AC&C has documented. Ormond Beach, Fla., won a 2019 Crown Communities Award for its OB Life series of community engagement meetings. Each meeting addressed a single community issue, and the meetings consisted of presentations from subject matter experts, Q&A sessions and discussions among attendees.
Ultimately, 650 people attended the meetings and gave direct input into city affairs. Ormond Beach’s mayor said it could be worth repeating every three to five years.
Another way that local governments can engage with Millennials and Gen-Z is by issuing mini-bonds for local projects, which I reported on in November 2018. Mini-bonds let people buy $500 to $1,000 investments into projects that they can see at home—be it restoring a historic district, building a new park, converting streetlights to LEDs or another visible project.
Millennials’ lack of wealth compared to previous generations is well-documented—and that was before the COVID-19 pandemic, too. Moreover, a 2018 survey from financial news site Bankrate shows that Millennials are the only generation to prefer cash as a long-term investment to stocks.
That’s why selling $500 or $1,000 increments of a stable security like bonds directly to citizens is a great tool to get Millennials and Gen-Z involved in local government. Those investments will pay for tangible things that the investors can point to and say, “I helped make that happen,” while they earn a profit, no less.
Engagement meeting series and mini-bonds may not be feasible for larger jurisdictions. But one highly innovative way that cities and counties of any size can give a powerful voice to their citizens is through participatory budgeting (PB).
I reported a story about PB in October 2019 that lays out how it works and how some cities have applied it in their communities. But essentially, residents submit local public works project proposals online, local government whittles the list down to feasible projects, residents vote on their favorite project(s) via an online ballot, and the government immediately begins implementing the projects that get the most votes. The process then repeats itself two or three years later.
PB is truly an inexpensive win-win for a local government and its citizens. Even larger jurisdictions can break up participation by district or precinct. This editorial from December 2019 lays out all of my thoughts on PB and why every local government in the United States should adopt it to improve citizen engagement. The Participatory Budgeting Project also has lots of great resources for any government that’s interested in exploring PB.
One of the reasons I’m passionate about PB is because of its efficiency and convenience as a citizen engagement tool. Those traits relate directly to the second move government should make to attract Millennial and Gen-Z engagement: modernizing public meetings.
2) Modernize public meetings by optimizing convenience and efficiency, while catering to citizens’ needs
When I was in graduate school for journalism, I covered a city council meeting for an assignment once. Based on the plodding proceedings, I’m grateful to have only sat through one council meeting to date.
Public meetings are necessary for a local government to function. But presented with lengthy, meandering, tedious meetings as a major way to engage with government, I can’t imagine people wanting to get involved of their own volition. Can you?
That’s why it’s important for government to modernize public meetings to attract Millennial and Gen-Z engagement. Give the people what they want quickly, efficiently and conveniently. This will also help government rehabilitate its stodgy reputation.
The COVID-19 pandemic is already forcing a paradigm shift upon local governments’ efficiency with public meetings—I reported in May 2020 about how COVID-19 has forced public meetings to be held remotely. After the pandemic stabilizes, I hope that governments continue to offer remote public meetings as an option alongside in-person public meetings.
Remote public meetings are more convenient and less of a time commitment than in-person meetings—I can join my city council’s Zoom meeting from my home to bring up my new business and avoid having to sit through old business and officer reports that don’t relate to me. They’re also open to people who cannot travel to in-person meetings.
Remote public meetings are often recorded and available for people to view later. Some local governments had been recording their council meetings and posting them online well before the pandemic—Chandler, Ariz., for instance, has an archive of public meeting videos dating back to 2018.
Fayetteville, N.C., took an action with this YouTube video of one of its council meetings that’s absolutely key to modernizing public meetings: the city included clickable timestamps of key agenda items within the recorded meeting in the video’s description. Clicking one of those timestamps will make the video automatically start playing at the specified time.
Recorded meetings with timestamps like Fayetteville’s can help increase engagement with members of younger generations. A recording lets them stay up-to-date with city and county current events on their own time, while timestamps ensure they can get the information they want without needing to sit through long portions of a meeting that are of no interest to them.
Convenient and efficient communication should be the modern goals of public meetings. That kind of communication is also a major part of the third move that governments should make to attract Millennial and Gen-Z engagement.
3) Use smartphone apps and online tools to connect with citizens on their turf
Government can quickly get people the information they need and let us engage directly with them through other online means besides digitized public meetings.
COVID-19 especially has forced governments to adapt in-person services and communication to the digital realm—in April 2020, I reported about the ways that local governments used technology to serve their citizens in the early days of the pandemic.
Employing geographic information systems (GIS) is a hallmark that many of these online tools share. One of the neater projects I examined was Chesterfield County, Va.’s Chesterfield Eats to Go map, which sought to inform residents of the largely suburban county about which restaurants in town were offering pickup or delivery.
While online tools are often helpful, a 2019 study by social media platform Snapchat shows that 78 percent of Gen-Z respondents said that mobiles are the most important device for accessing the internet, and 74 percent of Millennial respondents said the same thing.
That’s why apps are such an ideal way for government to connect with people—nearly everyone with a smartphone visits its screen numerous times per day. While one can access online tools on phones, apps that are tailored to smartphone screens often make for a better user experience.
Many governments have already done a stellar job of developing apps, as I reported in November 2016. Some cities have contracted with third-party developers to develop GIS-enabled apps with functionality like reporting public works-related issues, monitoring local transit and accessing city information.
Others have taken a more do-it-yourself approach. In releasing a series of self-developed apps, Virginia Beach, Va., has been able to create less bulky apps without compromising on desired functionality. By late 2016, the city had created an app for reporting public works issues and requesting city services, an app for finding events in the city and an app that provides real estate-related information in the city.
Meanwhile, Marietta, Ga., won a 2019 Crown Communities Award partly for an app it developed that gives users real-time traffic updates in Marietta. Those traffic updates don’t come from GIS satellites, though.
The primary reason Marietta won its Crown Community Award was for implementing connected city technology that joins all of its traffic signals in a network, which connects with equipment aboard fire trucks to ensure they never hit a red light.
Smartphones with Marietta’s app installed connect to the network of traffic signals (and smartphones) to reveal traffic information, without communicating anyone’s personal info. This network of traffic signals exemplifies the Internet of Things (IoT), in being a digital network of things whose primary functions aren’t internet access.
As buzzword technologies like IoT and 5G continue to develop and further permeate society, smartphones that harness those technologies will grow even more prevalent in daily life. If there was ever a time for local governments to jump on the smartphone app bandwagon, it’s now.
The keyword underlying all three moves
But building local government apps shouldn’t be done just to stay abreast with technology trends. It should be done on behalf of citizens, a word that each of these three moves share.
Catering to citizens is key for citizen engagement, but catering to them has no one-size-fits-all approach. What may entice older generations may not entice younger generations—a Gen-Z person and a Silent Generation person will probably show different levels of enjoyment with a TikTok video versus a print edition of the local newspaper.
Some public sector organizations have done due diligence in learning about Millennials’ and Gen-Z’s views. In 2015, the Florida League of Cities (FLC) detailed how it commissioned a communications firm to conduct focus groups with active-voting Florida Millennials to determine how they perceive local government.
The results were telling. “This was a vital finding: [Millennials] liked their respective communities, but these active-voting… Millennials, did not attribute the services of their surroundings to something a government did for them,” Steven Vancore wrote in the FLC’s July/August 2015 issue of its Quality Cities publication.
Experiences in my personal life corroborate this finding. In telling friends and peers about my work over the years, they’ve commonly expressed surprise that local governments are doing the sorts of things for their citizens that I report about. “Wait, the government does that?” is a question I’ve heard quite a few times in these conversations.
These people often don’t realize the role that local government plays in their lives, and they either don’t realize that they can have a say in that role or why giving their say is important.
That’s why in order to engage with Millennials and Gen-Z successfully, local leaders need to speak those generations’ language, converse with them on their turf and communicate with the convenience and efficiency of the technologies with which they’ve grown up.
But if you start the conversation that way, they might just surprise you with their responses.