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PART 3 in a series of posts documenting Sanford’s first Behavioral Economics for Municipal Policy Course.

There are a lot of empty seats in that town council meeting.  When was the last time you went to a city council meeting?  And why don’t more citizens show up to council meetings when their input is sought and welcomed and when the topics impact their lives?

Attendance at public meetings matters, and the Zebulon Town Manager Joe Moore knows it.  He summed up the importance nicely when commenting for a story on why his town was partnering with the Sanford School:

Citizen engagement “is something I would have wanted to (work on), regardless,” Moore said. “For some of the things we need to talk about as a town – downtown, greenways, street maintenance – we’ve got to have people engaged. They have to be cognizant of the situation, but also knowledgeable to participate and give well-founded input” (Read the full N&O story here).

This year, a team of graduate students from the Sanford School of Public Policy worked with the Town of Zebulon to apply insights from behavioral economics to increase citizen engagement in town council meetings.

The team identified multiple barriers to citizen participation, ranging from lack of information about the meetings and how their presence could prove beneficial to lack of time to attend, to lack of knowledge about the participation rates of their neighbors.

Based on insights from behavioral science, the team hypothesized that more people would turnout for meetings if they received a personalized invitation, and if the meeting included a social gathering.

To test their idea, the students, in partnership with the town, designed and conducted a Randomized Control Trial that comprised all 1,655 Zebulon households.  You, the reader, should pause here and reflect on what I just wrote because you won’t read a statement like that often.  First, it is very rare that policy students ever get to conduct randomized control trials in the field.  At best, most students have an excellent professor that teaches them about RCTs (thank you, Liz Ananat), providing them with data from a field experiment that someone else conducted.  Second, it is also very rare that local governments have the time, resources, or expertise (and political courage) to conduct RCTs, even though well conducted experiments can help them better serve their constituents by knowing what works and what doesn’t.

The RCT tested the efficacy of several different types of invitations to citizen to attend the a Town Council working session on street improvements.

  1. First, all households received a notification about the meeting as part of their water bill.
  2. Second, the town randomly divided all households into three groups.
    1. The first group received a postcard with a simple reminder about the upcoming council meeting.
    2. The second group received a personalized invitation signed by the mayor.
    3. The third group received the same personalized invitation that included an invitation to a social gathering after the meeting.

So what actually happened?

In total, 19 people showed up for the town council working session.  This may not sound like a lot, but it was a notable increase in attendance (again, see picture above).  2 of the 19 people who showed up had received postcard A, 5 of 19 people had received the postcard B, and 12 of the 19 people received postcard C (and for the policy wonks out there, the difference between the results for postcard C and A is statistically significant).

The big takeaway: there is some evidence to suggest that sending personalized message that include an invitation to a social gathering after the meeting may increase attendance. Additional experiments will help Zebulon learn more.