The Lab @ DC
Stronger Evidence for a Stronger DC

How do we make civic engagement accessible for residents?

How do we make civic engagement accessible for residents?

Project Summary
Mayor Bowser places a big emphasis on community engagement. As a city government, we are always looking for ways to make it stronger. The term “Community Engagement” is often met with eye rolls from public servants and citizens alike. The problem? Engagement is often on the government’s terms and places the burden of participation on residents. Everyone ends up frustrated, with both sides (wrongly) thinking the other doesn’t care enough to participate.

With a grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge competition, we developed a project proposal to redesign civic engagement. Through a series of community interactions we explored the use of surveys and polls as an engagement tool. The resulting concept was SpeakUp DC - a dedicated team inside government to champion resident interaction with accessible tools like in-person polls and mobile-friendly surveys. Unfortunately, the project was not awarded an implementation grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies, so it did not move beyond the concept stage.
Lab team members outside a Metro station gathering resident feedback on what to name the survey platform (Credit: The Lab @ DC)

Lab team members outside a Metro station gathering resident feedback on what to name the survey platform (Credit: The Lab @ DC)

Why is this issue important in DC?
Our residents are busy and not all have the time and means to attend community meetings and public hearings. As a result, our residents might be less engaged and our government is missing opportunities to be more effective and responsive to residents’ needs.

What did we do?
We tested our idea that short surveys or polls were an accessible way for residents to engage. We went to libraries, restaurants, parks, grocery stores, and metro stations and asked more than 1,600 Washingtonians to respond to storyboards and polls. We also interviewed experts at the Census Bureau, Urban Institute, and Pew on surveying best practices. We then used this knowledge to pilot a citywide survey on affordable housing.

What have we learned?
Residents want to be engaged. They just feel too busy. They told us they desire convenience, inclusivity, transparency, and accountability.

What comes next?
Unfortunately, the project was not awarded an implementation grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies so it was discontinued due to budget constraints. We learned that spending a few hours outside a metro stations was a great way to connect with residents⁠—a lesson we can replicate in The Lab’s other work.