Four tips for city governments on using digital engagement to empower citizens

Four tips for city governments on using digital engagement to empower citizens

In the last five years, there’s been a lot of talk about how digital technology and apps can be used by local and city governments to improve citizen engagement and transparency – from London to New York, the Middle East to South America, and we’ve heard a lot from India’s prime minister during his leadership on his digital government initiatives.

While we looked recently at how countries around the world are exploiting the digital economy, and how digitization could add trillions of Euros to the European economy, and the US smart cities push, the UK’s innovation agency Nesta has given us four tips on how city governments can use digital technology to engage and empower citizens.

Tom Saunders, a senior researcher with the international innovation team focused on innovation and cities, says in his blog, “With all the apps and platforms out there, it’s hard to make sense of what is going on in the world of digital tools for citizen engagement. It seems there are three distinct activities that digital tools enable: delivering council services online – say applying for a parking permit; using citizen generated data to optimise city government processes and engaging citizens in democratic exercises.”

A summary of his four tips on engaging citizens with digital technology to help deliver services more efficiently and improve engagement in democratic processes is outlined here (the full article is here).

  1. Resist the temptation to build an app

Saunders says if you take a look at the download stats for a few city government apps on the Google app store – they’re not pretty. App development is also very expensive. There aren’t many good global networks on citizen engagement in the digital age. But there are many examples of cities that have used digital technologies to engage citizens, both internationally and in the UK.  He says before calling in the app developers, contact the city governments and civic minded organizations that have already done what you’re planning to do, to see if you can cooperate and build on their experiences.

Alongside this, he adds, it’s also a good idea to support the development of open source technologies – such as D-CENT and the tools created by My Society. The idea is to build a shared library of digital tools that city governments can add to when they want to run a new citizen engagement exercise, rather than start from scratch each time by building proprietary software. UNICEF also has a $9m fund to develop open source civic technologies.

  1. Think about what you want to engage citizens for

Sometimes engagement is statutory: communities have to be shown new plans for their area. Beyond this, there are a number of activities that citizen engagement is useful for. When designing a citizen engagement exercise it may help to think which of the following you are trying to achieve (note: they aren’t mutually exclusive):

  • Better understanding of facts: to collect more data about what is happening in your city, a large number of sensors can be installed across the city, to track everything from people movements to how full bins are. However, a cheaper and more efficient way for cities to do this might involve working with people to collect this data – making use of the smartphones that residents already carry around with them. Prominent examples of this included flood mapping in Jakarta using geo-located tweets and pothole mapping in Boston using a mobile app.
  • Generating better ideas and options: numerous examples of this in urban planning include the use of Minecraft by the UN in Nairobi to collect and visualize ideas for the future development of the community, or the Carticipe platform in France, which residents use to indicate changes they would like to see in their city on a map. Platforms like BetterReykjavic include a debate function for any idea that is proposed.
  • Better decision making: by enabling better decision making, better data and better ideas, digital technologies can give the power to make decisions directly to citizens. For example, allowing citizens to decide how a percentage of the city budget is spent (participatory budgeting), which emerged in Brazil in the 1980s; digital technologies also help city governments reach a much larger audience – such as ‘Madame Mayor, I have an idea’, a participatory budgeting process that lets citizens propose and vote on ideas for projects in Paris.
  1. Remember that there’s a world beyond the internet

Digital government may be the future, but it isn’t the present. As smartphones and apps proliferate, it’s understandable that someone would think that engaging residents online means setting up a website and waiting for people to come and use it. But the most successful examples of digital citizen engagement rely on traditional media to promote the initiative. My Ideal City, an initiative designed to crowdsource ideas for the redevelopment of the city centre in Bogota, used a daily one-hour radio show to promote the project. As a result, 10,000 suggestions were submitted to the platform.

  1. Pick the right question for the right crowd

Saunders says, “You’ve worked out what you want from residents, chosen the right tool, and then launched your campaign, hopefully doing a good deal of promotion through more traditional channels. Why are you still getting hardly any response? This is probably because you’ve picked the wrong question for the wrong crowd.” He adds, “Think about yourself for a second. Have you ever engaged in a meaningful way, other than voting and filling in forms online, with your local government? For the majority of the people I know, the answer is no.”

He adds that when trying to crowdsource ideas think about which segment of the crowd you are trying to engage. If you’re looking to come up with a better alcohol management policy for the city, to take one recent city government crowdsourcing initiative as an example, the general population probably isn’t the best crowd to consult on this, as they lack the expertise to deal with the question.

For the full article by Tom Saunders, click here.

[Image: D-CENT is a Europe-wide project to create digital tools for direct democracy and economic empowerment.]

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