what to ask

How you can ask good questions in civic engagement projects


Types of questions

There are many typologies of questions. We define two major kinds:

What” questions: Questions to define the outcomes of a policy. Answers will often involve ideological considerations about priorities or allocation. There is no “right” answer, as the final decisions are based on ideology.
How to” questions: Questions to define the change needed in appropriations and regulations to achieve a pre-defined outcome. These decisions require managing uncertainties and finding what works.

Knowledgeable crowds can play a role in both types of questions; although, the “what” decisions are less about knowledge and more about directions. Most management decisions on strategy, operation and organization have both layers.

Tips for good questions

Here are some tips for writing good questions:

  • The question should communicate what a successful outcome looks like. 
  • Good questions are about the future, NOT the past. Avoid the blame game.
  • Participants should understand what budgets or fields are open for consideration.
  • Don’t ask yes/no questions. Begin your question with questions words like "what" and "how."
  • Test your question with 3 people before launching your project. Did they understand it?

Who should be asking?

The identity of the decision-maker in your project is important for the success of the project; the people who pose the question heavily influence the process and outcome. Here are some things to consider:

  • To whom can participants not say “no” to in your project? If a question is asked, to which figures in your organization will everyone answer?
  • Who has the authority to make decisions? Which figures are recognized as having the power to create change on your issue?
  • Who cares about the project’s success? The project decision-makers need to be interested and engaged?

You can appoint up to 3 decision-makers in the project admin.

Framing your question

Writing a good question requires us to go through 3 steps:


Think about the future you want to achieve. This is your outcome. Different actions, activities, or outputs can get you there.


What kinds of decisions are you able to make? Which resources, methods, regulations or structures are open for change?


Link your decision scope to the outcome and ask how to achieve a desired future with your resources (“What does it take to achieve [outcome]?”)

Envisioning a future

Defining your desired outcome is a critical first step. Knowing where you aspire to go is necessary for understanding what actions, activities, or outputs should change to achieve your future ideal.

An outcome is the future we want to create, but cannot fully control. Changing our actions cannot guarantee a particular outcome. We may change our spending priorities, operations guidelines, or procurement rules, but we can't force clients to buy products or citizens to recycle.

  • An outcome is measured by the impact on stakeholders.
  • Outcomes are influenced by factors outside our control.
  • Outcomes take time to achieve, and to measure.

An outcome is ultimately measured by the impact on stakeholders, not by the success of our actions. Outcomes are shaped by many outside societal forces, and take time to achieve. We can only measure outcomes after 3-5 years.

New tenants embrace affordable housing

Outcome Indicator

Newly published RFPs for building housing

Output Indicator

Defining what's open for change

A decision reflects a present change to deliver future results. It is vital to define in advance what changes are open for discussion in order to generate actionable insights from your community.

Decisions can be defined in terms of appropriations or regulations. We should ask ourselves: What budgets can be repurposed? What contracts can be modified? What rules can be changed? What can we change about our organizational structure?

  • Decisions impact resources, methods, regulations, or structures.
  • Decisions are made within the boundaries of your authority.
  • Clear decisions are more actionable decisions.

Decisions should be clearly defined for the best chance of achieving our intended outcome. Unclear decisions are less actionable.

At least 70% of the affordable houses will be assigned to young couples

Clear Decision

We prioritize young couples in the assignment of affordable houses

Unclear Decision

Writing the question

A good question asks community members to consider changes within the decision scope that can lead to a desired future.

For example, how should we train our workforce to increase revenues per employee? The decision scope is defined as how we train our workforce. The outcome is defined as increased revenues per employee.

As another example, what changes to our marketing strategy will attract younger citizens to our events? The decision scope is defined as changes to marketing strategy. The outcome is defined as more young people at our events. 

Examples for a good question

An effective project should help you find what works. A good question asks the community to consider what changes are needed today to achieve the desired outcomes of tomorrow. Here are some examples:

We want to make sure that every citizen can profit from the digital world. How can we achieve this goal?

The volume of recyclables has dropped significantly in the previous year. How should the municipality increase the number of residents recycling the appropriate recyclables?

We want to satisfy customers. How can we change our procedures in order to both improve our services and retain and grow our customer base?

How can we modify our community meeting activities in order to grow the number of young members?

We want more people to participate in our events and activities. What changes will enable us to increase the number of applicants?