Democracy is built on the foundation of citizen engagement. In order for a true democracy to thrive, citizens must vote, participate and collaborate with government at all levels. Yet, in a world of texts, tweets and tablets, citizen engagement is changing—simply setting up a microphone during council meetings and creating a generic firstname.lastname@example.org inbox is no longer enough.
Today’s public views citizen engagement as a participatory process, not an event, with continual cycles of dialogue and feedback around government decisions. But these conversations are rarely happening at city hall. Citizens are turning to apps, websites and social media as primary resources.
So, how can organizations create an engaging, collaborative government in the 21st century? There are three components to a successful citizen engagement model:
1. Invite and capture conversations
A recent Pew Internet Poll found that 31 percent of American smartphone users have visited visit a local, state, or federal government website. Citizens are talking about local government across social media channels and other online media, regardless of whether or not your organization is participating. It’s simple to engage with citizens in online communities:
- Sign up for an account on major social media sites and join the conversation.
- Encourage citizens to send you messages, and then respond to their suggestions.
- When possible, ask citizens questions and use their input in upcoming decisions.
For those citizens who might not be interested tweeting your organization or commenting on your website on a regular basis, you can still engage them in crowdsourced information gathering. For example, the City of Boston developed an app called “Street Bump” that uses GPS and gyroscope readings to identify potholes during citizens’ commutes.
By getting a large number of citizens to passively offer information, you’re better able to collect data and act on findings—rather than waiting for someone to show up at the microphone in your next meeting.
2. Integrate citizen feedback into your project management and decision making process
As your internal team gathers information and sets the scope of the project, use this newly captured citizen feedback to drive decisions:
- Include public insight in your documentation.
- Designate someone to share citizen ideas in meetings.
- When you encounter a hurdle, throw a question out to the crowd.
Today, “hacking” doesn’t just relate to cybersecurity—it’s become a term that speaks to capturing the knowledge and skillset of individuals, as demonstrated with recent government “hackathons.” Hacking into the knowledge base of your citizens can result in innovation. For instance, at a recent hackathon in Hawaii, citizens came up with the idea of Honolulu Answers—an online robust Q&A website that solves the issue of quickly responding to common citizen questions about government services and information.
3. Share results and encourage continuous improvement
After engaging, citizens will want to know how their ideas are being put to work. Moreover, citizens want to get involved in developing the project further.
As described by Beth Novek, former deputy CTO at the White House, organizations should take an open-source approach to government. For public-facing web projects, open APIs can allow citizens to build on what was already created to enhance the project. Further, opening government information and data through web portals can increase government transparency and spur innovation in the private sector.
And finally, keep the cycle going—solicit and contribute to ongoing conversations. The discussion might surface your next great idea.