I’m a relatively new father and now proud supporter of a dad bod. Joking aside, I’m trying to get back into shape. Whether it’s dieting, learning a new skill, or killing a bad habit, you too know what it is like trying to make a change.

You’re probably asking yourself how making a personal change relates to gamification in civic tech.

Well, a common statement we hear broadly from our local government clients relates to a general frustration in the lack of engagement and activation with local citizens. In order for municipalities to thrive, they have to provide timely, accurate services, which requires connecting citizens to those services being offered.

To understand change, you need to realize that it breaks down into two factors: desire and motivation. You have to desire a change and then be motivated to make that change a reality.

Citizens want an efficient government that delivers – so the desire exists. But, it is motivation which is a critical and complicated behavior; in the context of inspiring motivation, we look to gamification as a tool to help drive motivation.

What is Gamification?

Gamification is a word you’ve have heard tossed around before, but you might not have stopped to think about what it actually means. It is the idea of using data-driven techniques in order to build game mechanics into our everyday lives, with the end goal to motivate action.

Biologically, we’re wired to compete and driven toward achieving. Drawing on this knowledge, gamification is the idea of using points, badges, or levels to incentive someone towards achieving an end goal, with the hope that you encourage participation and interaction. Let’s dig deeper by looking at a few examples:


Launched in 2009, the location-based social network quickly shot up as the category leader by using a points system and rewarding users with “Mayor” status once they had the most check-ins at any given location. Competition between users ensued, resulting in user activity shooting up.


The enterprise information system, implemented a leader board, which helped contribute to a 250% increase in business usage and adoption!

Jay-Z’s Decoded

Arguably the ultimate gamified marketing experience, the launch of Jay-Z’s autobiography, Decoded, in partnership with Bing, created a scavenger hunt style campaign to drive awareness.

Nudges, The Science behind Gamification

Without realizing it we are making thousands of decisions every day, in an extremely wide range of topics from what to eat for breakfast to how we raise our children to the causes we champion. A nudge, which came to mainstream attention thanks to a 2008 book by economists Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein, is any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their incentives. To count as a nudge, the intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid. Nudges are not mandates.

Putting fruit at eye level counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not. In this form, drawing on behavioral economics, the nudge is applied to influence behavior, rather than regulate it.

Being human, we all are susceptible to various biases that can lead us to make bad decisions. Our poor choices make us worse off. But if used correctly, Nudges can help.

Local Governments Can Use Nudges

Thaler and Sunstein show that by knowing how people think, we can design choice environments that make it easier for people to choose better for themselves and for their society. Nudge offers a unique new take, which excitingly, doesn’t require us to restrict freedom of choice.

We know that communities work better when citizens are engaged. According to Paul Born, the co-founder and President of Tamarack Institute:

Give good info & effective tools, and they will collaborate to create communities. Click To Tweet

Further, a process that engages citizens can increase the likelihood that projects or solutions will be widely accepted. Citizens who participate in these processes show significant commitment to helping make the projects happen and therefore we create more effective solutions, with a higher chance of a successful outcome. 

The more people who know what is going on and who are willing to work toward a goal, the more likely a community is to be successful in reaching its goals. In addition, we feel engaged we also have a greater sense of trust in local governance. 

So all a local government has to do is harness nudges to engage citizens and a Utopian society will emerge?

Gamification Gone Wrong

As we saw in the successful examples above, these companies all had different agendas than we see in local governments. Unlike these companies, whose goal was to drive up usage in order to demonstrate increasing “Active User” levels resulting an in economic gain for the company, Civic Tech companies have a responsibility to the local governments they serve. The end goal isn’t always “more is better”.

In Civic Tech, more isn't always better Click To Tweet

We can see this first-hand in the case of service requests. Our civic tech tool should keep the end goal in mind, which is to help deliver better services to citizens and to make the local government both more efficient and more responsive. In our space, we don’t want to incentivize activity for activity sake. For example, if we use the Total Number of Requests Created as our metric of success, we’ve failed.

We want to motivate positive behaviors, such as reducing the cost of services, increasing the efficiency of services, and increasing civic engagement.

Focus on the Goal First

To avoid misusing Gamification, we have to think about the end goal first. As result, we’re thinking less about driving more usage, and instead thinking about a Channel Shift strategy, where we shift communication residents from more expensive channels, such as telephone phone to less expensive channels, such as the mobile app.

In this case, we deem it a success not necessarily with an increase in total service requests reported, but instead with the percentage shifted off of expensive channels.