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Millennials and public engagement

I posted a long comment on a Facebook friend’s status update: Naomi Devine, Whistler 2020 Sustainability Coordinator, wrote that she was “thinking about the design of public engagement for the Official Community Plan.”

Public engagement is a topic I’ve been mulling over, albeit on the “amateur” level: sadly, I don’t get paid to come up with this stuff. Sometimes I think I could do a pretty good job at it, though, especially when I see what passes for engagement in some places…

Naomi’s status update made me think about the so-called Millennial generation, in particular the Pew Research Foundation‘s recent How Millennial Are You? quiz.


According to the Pew quiz (which was down last night – probably too many boomers taking it to see how they’ll score), Millennials are ambitious. They also don’t read the paper (no mainstream media, thanks) and they don’t contact their local, regional, or national government officials.

So… Good luck to any and all government officials trying to design a public engagement strategy that doesn’t just engage all the usual suspects (i.e., the Boomers, who are always ready to jump up and down about something – maybe even jump up and down about their Millennial kidlets, whom they have to shepherd through life).

So what did I write on Naomi’s Facebook wall? First, I wanted to know where she was working on public engagement, and whether the “designing part [was] mostly for trying to get people to engage online, or everywhere (including face-2-face)?”

I’m curious because I wonder how web design usability tools such as user profiles, which figure strongly (and positively) in designing a good web experience, factor into “real life” engagement design (that is, the face-2-face kind).

Then I added, “I’m also curious in how to engage people who don’t vote and don’t want to, either. It’s easy to dismiss them and say they (we?) deserve the rotten governance that results, but that’s like thinking that cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face is a clever move, right? 😉 ”

I mentioned the Pew Research Foundation’s quiz, and wrote that “When I looked that quiz over, I was reminded of the truism, ‘if the news are important, they’ll find me.'” It was someone’s young teenage son who said that – can’t recall for sure whether it was or was not Jeff Jarvis’s, but it may have been.

At any rate, that quote represents a Millennial stance, and it’s borne out by the Pew quiz: you lose points if you admit to having read the paper or contacted any government officials in recent memory – Millennials don’t give a shit about that sort of engagement.

I’ve been reading Dan Brown’s excellent book, Communicating Design: Developing Web Site Documentation for Design and Planning, and I added that the book “has me wondering how you can design user profiles for people whose very identity depends on cool, ironic disengagement.”

Ok, not all Millennials are cool and ironically disengaged (remember the ambitious part?), but I think it’s a real challenge to design user profiles meant to represent Millennial citizen engagement – and then, using those profiles, to construct an engagement strategy.

Obviously, Millennial engagement exists – President Obama’s campaign certainly tapped into it. But it’s probably easier to design a Millennial user profile for the next Tweetie for iPhone application than for a Millennial going into a voting booth.

Or, horrors, filling out a questionnaire about the community plan… (I mean, does anybody actually still do questionnaires? …Unless, that is, it’s a questionnaire in the form of a quiz that lets you stroke your inner narcissist …like that “how millennial are you?” quiz …or some of the other quizzes out there?)

At the local level, if it’s about “doing good and saving the world, you can still engage the usual suspects in all the university social work and psychology programs,” as well as all the older Boomers who feel obliged to engage (and who can be such a turn-off, too). But (I added), “you’ll miss a whole bunch of people who really don’t want to read the news, follow up on the issues, go to rallies or protests, or engage their elected representatives. For one thing, they don’t vote anyway – see our low voter turnouts…”



Ah yes, the low voter turnouts… Victoria’s mayor was elected by 12% of the electorate, if I recall correctly. Fewer than 30% of eligible voters voted in our last municipal election… Most of the people who did vote were senior citizens. Look what we got…

And yet the people who don’t vote are smart citizens. (For one thing, their Boomer parents made sure of that.) How do you turn them on?

“Maybe you have to find out what they’re working on, what interests them, and engage them where they are,” I wrote, in answer to my own question.

“Go where they are, don’t expect to build a site or a ‘strategy’ that makes them come to you” – that should be the thing.

Easier said than done.

1 Comment

  1. Boomers yesterday, Millenials today, (I don’t know) Boneheads tomorrow. Every generation is a naturally transitional phase of a culture or humanity. And every generation asserts its self-righteouness for relevance. The generation of today complains about its inheritance from the previous generation and dreads the forthcoming ineptitudes of the next. And so on and so forth. Oxymoronically speaking, it is a repetitious cultural transition in perpetuity without any significant change. Not to undermind your elegant insights, but we are simply engaging in pretty talk about different labels on the same product, different packaging of the same old list of ingredients. My last remaining ambition in life has become not to have my daughter think of me the way I think of my parents. My strategy: act naturally, leave her alone, and marvel at her path. If there is a connection that will continue to matter to her, she’ll find a way to nourish it. If there isn’t, communication tricks make no difference. Unless I see the relationship with the eyes of the marketplace, with the eyes of the consumer. Who do I pay, what can I buy, what product will bring her back to me? There are some gaps that cannot be bridged with communication strategy, no matter how foppishly Blackberrish that might make one feel.

    Comment by Loucas Raptis — March 5, 2010 #

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