oktober 25

What you can learn from business to excel in participation!


I am by no means a marketing geek. In fact, I studied sociology and then urban planning precisely because I wanted to stay far as possible away from that business, management and marketing sphere of studies. Over there they seemed to be all about making money rather than making our world a better place.

Oh, was I a short-sighted 20-something! Equipped with theories on societal change, with theories of how equitable public participation is meant to happen, I hoped to be ready to be on the ground: Designing a participation process and then enticing people into joining it.

But you know what? In the past months, I realized that those people in the marketing and business corner have some amazing insights into how to engage people.

Marketing and business methods are tools. If you use them with altruistic goals in mind, they can propel your project forward and give you invaluable insights towards achieving said altruistic goal. Of course, if you want to sell people stuff they don’t need, you can employ the same tools on the way. That is why the terms I will be using below might have a bad reputation in your mind.

So please, bear with me, take the time. I promise, this is worth it! So just for today, let’s say: Your participation process = your product

In business: You want your product to be used by people (in fact, you want your product to be so helpful, that people are willing to pay for it). People will use your product when it solves one of their pressing problems. They will recommend it to others if they found it useful in achieving their aims, if it was easy to understand and navigate. And if it wasn’t that useful but still a ton of fun, they might still happily recommend it.

Plain and simple. If you need the revenue of your product to finance your living costs next month, a business owner is going to make very sure that her product ticks those boxes! Otherwise she wasting her and other people’s time and resources.

Plain and simple, everything you develop should be:

  • Easy to use
  • Tremendously helpful
  • Solving actual problems
  • Fun and enjoyable

But somehow, the urgency to do just that and keep that on the very top of your list gets lost the moment we move away from plain business and into the public sector and academia? Well, because here, the pressures are different. Your main focus is not the bottom line, the revenue. Most likely, you are tax-funded and have some sort of mission or mandate. You may be fulfilling obligations, pleasing politicians, pleasing voters or trying to publish positive results. Likely it is a larger hierarchical organization. They urgency has shifted, ever so slightly, away from the creating something people use to somewhere else.

And even if you are not yourself in the public sector: Maybe you are a consultant, hired by municipalities to undertake public participation processes for them. Whom are you pleasing first? The municipality or the people? Well, when in doubt, likely the municipality, as they are the ones you need to get hired by again.

So, now what? Does that mean the public sector is inefficient? Does that mean we should privatize public services as much as possible? No, this is not my opinion and neither the core of my argument. I have no interest of bringing the business aspects of designing products for maximum profit and subsequently the reaping of maximized profits by a select few owners into the realm of public services.

What I do wish for is for you with your public service to aim for maximum impact. And, if we can believe the results of business, that seems to be when everything you develop is easy to use, tremendously helpful, solving actual problems, and fun and enjoyable!

“I have been trying to do that along!”, you might say now. I absolutely agree with you! This is something very intuitive. Yet, I believe it is easy to say you are aiming for this. I have been saying that from the very start of my humble participation career as well.

But I do not think I was equipped to do it. Nor was our team equipped to do it. Nor was our institutional frame equipped to handle it. We were all saying it yet not equipped to achieve it.

Why were we not equipped? Well let’s be honest:

  • Product developer
  • Marketer
  • Animator
  • Inventor
  • Entrepreneur

Is that what you think of yourself? Those were at least not the words we used to describe ourselves in my team. We saw ourselves as public servants and scientists.

Going further, we can also think about organizational culture. Is yours:

  • Agile
  • Ready to fail and try again
  • Risk-taking
  • Creatively thinking outside the box

Are those the words you would use to describe your team culture? Is that the culture of the average public service? If I am being honest myself: Rather not, even if I would wish to be able to say so.

But that is it! The more of this you have: A self-understanding as agile, not-afraid-to-fail Entrepreneurs, the better! It may be difficult within grown hierarchical structures, but not impossible.

You can always start with your own mind-set and that is what I hope to give you in the following posts. On top of that, you might inspire your colleagues as well! So, now that I hope to have you on board on the idea that we can learn a lot form these business people, these are the topics we’ll cover next:

  • Understanding participation as leads and conversion!
  • The customer journey of awareness and from cold to warm!
  • What is their problem and how to give them value?

See you soon!

(My rambles on business in this and further articles have been inspired by Seth Godin who has been writing a famous blog on marketing. I read his book “Watcha gonna do with that duck”, a compilation of his blog posts)


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