• Facebook Messenger can help build bridges between citizens and government #FindingLegitimacy
  • @apptivism_org is working with @StatesofJersey to use government chatbots #FindingLegitimacy
  • Making governments more responsive is critical, says Apptivism's @Alex_Tupper #FindingLegitimacy

These days we’re not exactly short of ways to communicate. Technology and the internet have bestowed on us a myriad of ways to get in touch with each other or with organisations. It’s a fair bet that your phone today has text, WhatsApp, email, and an eclectic variety of social media options among its other functions.

But while the channels of communication are open to each other, the route between the citizen and government is hardly free from obstruction. Traditionally, if you want to get in touch with your elected representative or with government, you would write a letter or email, or attend a town hall or constituency surgery. Such options, while important, are also time-consuming and offer no guarantee that your voice will genuinely be taken into account at the decision-making table, thereby feeding into the legitimacy crisis affecting many governments worldwide.

Technology, though, and specifically the Facebook Messenger service, can help. That’s the message from Apptivism, a new London-based startup that has been busy building bridges between government, voters and not-for-profits in the eight short months it has been in existence. Its founders, with backgrounds in government, data science and behavioural economics, believe they have stumbled onto something that has huge potential – namely using Messenger to connect policymaker and populace.

Charging up the chatbots

The first solution the Apptivism team developed was an app that would serve up news articles and give users a quick and easy option to lobby their representatives. This was rejected, however, because there were too many barriers. “We knew from past experience that the need to download an app would create too much friction in the user experience,” says Alex Tupper, one of Apptivism’s two cofounders.

So instead, the team came across the idea of a chatbot, which is an automated conversation that you can have with a machine and which can be linked to Facebook Messenger. “Messenger is a wonderfully social platform,” says Tupper. “You trust your friends more than you would a marketing campaign, more than one billion people have it on their phone, and it is incredibly easy to use.”

Since settling on Messenger chatbots, they have been working with a range of government and not-for-profit clients. One example of this collaboration can be found in Jersey, one of the Channel Islands, where the chatbot has been used by the government on four consultations (environment, community living, parental benefits, and tax policy) since June. “We tried to do two things with the States of Jersey,” explains Tupper. “We wanted to prove that people liked this channel of communication, and we also wanted to show that it was more effective than previous channels.”

The chatbot approach has proved very effective, reaching four times as many people as a typical consultation, with strong levels of re-engagement between chats. A bonus of using this approach is that it tends to provoke richer, more constructive responses than other tools. “In the third chat, we achieved 35 percent growth in users and really interesting comments, as well as suggestions by the public. When you’re in a big anonymous group, there tends to be much more critical public opinion being voiced. But when you bring people into a one-to-one conversation with a chatbot, their contributions tend to be much more positive and constructive.”

Helping find legitimacy

Tupper goes on to say that this new service is absolutely designed to help develop constructive relationships between citizens and government – which is one of the founding principles of the Centre for Public Impact’s Finding Legitimacy project. “We wanted to make elected representatives and governments more responsive to communication, but also to increase the volume of communications from people,” he says.

Key to this was ensuring that people feel that it is worthwhile to get involved in such discussions. Firstly, the transaction must not take too much time and, secondly, users must be confident that their opinions and insights aren’t about to disappear into some kind of black hole which they will never hear back from.

Tupper says they have addressed this by being responsive. “It is all about the feedback loop. We address this in two ways: ‘in-chat’ quick feedback to the user about how their opinion compared with others on the platform; and through a results website with responses from government – www.apptivism.je – so people know that their opinions aren’t just vanishing into thin air.”

Eight months into Apptivism’s existence, it is already clear that this innovative way to connect citizen to decision-maker is proving hugely valuable. And the vision continues to expand, with Tupper outlining an ambition to build a pan-European civic engagement platform that will help bring more evidence and opinions to how decisions are made.

What is legitimacy to you? Where do you see legitimacy working well? How governments work with citizens to build legitimacy is a big question for CPI. 

Find out how to get involved in our Finding Legitimacy project 

 

Picture credit: charnsitr / Shutterstock.com

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