Citizen Engagement In Government


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When Should Government Be Spending Resources on Increasing Citizen Engagement

The recent (circa 2010) push to focus on "engagement", be it on the part of customers, employees, or citizens has hit the big time. Everyone is talking it and using it in dozens of different and almost entirely undefined ways, as if it's meaning and value is clear.

As is government. Citizen engagement is linked to all kinds of things in government, from open government, to gov2.0, to government transparency, and if you read articles on the web, you'd think it is the holy grail -- desirable for its own sake.

And therein lies the problem, or problems. First without a defnition of what it means, we'll never know why we are doing it, and once again, it comes down to a simple questions: Why is government seeking to engage citizens?

In what way does increasing citizen engagement actually make governing better? How does citizen engagement benefit the citizens of a jurisdiction?

No Easy Answers

There's no easy answers, in particular because we are not seeing clear, delineated citizen behaviors that would exemplify increased "engagement".

For example, if you look at the literature (the lay literature), you find engagement operationally defined as:

  • Amount of time spent on a government website
  • Number of likes or friends, or followers on a government Facebook Page
  • The number of comments on a government blog

NONE of these has any direct and demonstrable links to better government, or benefits for citizens. It's not surprising because the idea of citizen engagement, while having been around for a long time, is now being fueled by the obsession with social media, and the "interactions" that are alleged to occur there. Driven by marketing, and sales people, including companies that make large amounts of money selling "engagement solutions" to government, things have moved ahead.

And The Missing Why

As is common when governments act, they lose the WHY (they aren't alone when it comes to the use of shiny new toys and concepts). The behaviors suggest that governments fail to link the notion of "citizen" engagement to the basic reasons why governments exist. They fail to link engagement to benefits.

WIthout the why, and when tools are used for their own sake, countless dollars are lost, and it's more evident in government because unlike the private sector, there's no obvious "scoreboard" for the non-political arms of government.

Let's Throw Out The Buzz Phrase: Citizen Engagement

Let's remove the phrase, citizen engagement for the moment. SInce by and large it has no shared precise meaning, let's talk about the importance of dialogue between government and citizens, the importance of a populace that is interested in its democratic process.

We want (as in government wants) to stay "in touch" with the people in its jurisdiction. It's the only way to find a middle ground to maximize government's value to all citizens. And, citizens should have the option to communicate meaningfully with their governments, to have a chance to develop a sense that they might be able to make a difference (even though a single citizen's voice amongst millions belies the influence available).

So, yes, we need some focus groups. We need the ability to bring together members of a community to hear their opinions on issues. Mind you the mechanisms for this have been in place for a long time, and governments have been holding public meetings for decades.

As for technological means of communication -- Facebook, Blogs, Websites, and so on, are they really providing meaningful communication between citizen and government? You'll have to decide, but I think it would be rare for a citizen who took the time to write something online on a government Facebook page, to actually receive a personal, relevant and satisfying response from the real decision-makers.

And Then There's Democracy

One argument, and a good theoretical one, is that a lack of "citizen engagement" in the political process is a threat to democracy. And in many ways it probably is. We NEED citizens to be engaged in at least, voting. And better, in understanding the issues governments face. No question.

But given the abysmal turnout rates at the polls, will attempts by government to "engage" citizens have any effect at all when it comes to creating a populace of informed and keen voters? Doubtful. Why? Because the problems and root causes of why so many people have been turned off of the "vote" and the political process, have nothing to do with the lack of past Facebook pages, or Twitter accounts, or anything of the sort.

No amount of seeking to increase "online engagement" from citizens will make much of a dent in this, because there's no attempts to fix the root causes.

Available Information About Citizen Engagement In The Public Sector

3 Ways GIS is Powering Civic Engagement Initiatives - by Pat Fiorenza
Monica Pratt, Editor of ArcUser magazine, states that two types of civic engagement apps are emerging. Pratt states, "The first type complements existing government services and makes them more accessible. The second, more intriguing type, encourages people to work closely with government to do things no one had thought of doing before, like rounding up volunteers to clean beaches after a holiday weekend. (Views So Far 246 )

When the Tin Standard is Enough: Social Media Engagement vs. Broadcast - by Jeffrey Levy
Something profound here about citizen engagement and that is that the overwhelming majority of citizens do not want to engage, and WILL not engage, regardless of how much money is thrown at getting them to engage. Excerpt: In other words, there are plenty of people who are perfectly happy just receiving information from government agencies in the online places they already frequent. Not everyone is looking for more. (Views So Far 279 )

People Power: Harnessing Citizen Energy Via Social Media - by Andrew Krzmarzick
Last week, I had the opportunity to present for the Maryland Association of Counties (MACO) summer meeting along with Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz. Earlier this year, he announced that Baltimore County would be launching 23 technology initiatives and he shared a bit about their social media efforts to communicate more effectively with citizens on these and other county projects. Below are the slides from my presentation (Views So Far 275 )

Civic Engagement and Open Innovation: Engaging Stakeholders - by Lindsey Tepe
In an environment with decreasing resources and often increasing expectations for government performance, local government innovators are springing up in cities across the country. The three panelists for this session are working to make "government a platform", providing the tools for citizens to engage with the city, tools which can be utilized to provide important feedback and promote volunteerism within their communities. (Views So Far 251 )

Principles of Local Government Public Engagement - by Sandy Heierbacher
We hope the following principles will help guide trusted, high-quality and effective public engagement efforts that are sponsored, designed, convened, and/or facilitated by local officials. The Principles of Local Government Public Engagement includes the following ten elements: (Views So Far 253 )

Optimizing the Value of Social Media to Deliver Smart Government - by na
GovDelivery recently featured an IDC Report that contains questions posed by GovDelivery to Adelaide O'Brien, Research Director of Smart Government Strategies at IDC Government Insights. I'd encourage you to download the report to check out the full report, which had a lot of interesting information. Downloadable report requires registration. (Views So Far 230 )

Making the Best of the Worst Online Reviews of Government Departments - by Kelsey Lund
You wouldn't think poor reviews would be of great concern for government. Here's some suggestions for government departments on how to handle those horrible online reviews. new (Views So Far 8 )

Who is Listening? Who is Responding? Can Technology Innovations Empower Citizens to Affect Positive Changes in their Communities? - by SOREN GIGLER
Citizen engagement and involvement may be far more important in second and third world countries and emerging democracies. Interesting article that focuses on what's going on in other less developed countries. (Views So Far 219 )

Public Dialogue: Not Community Engagement - by na
What happens if we get a chance to build an effective democracy as citizens and no one shows up? Sad to say, this is repeatedly occurring in various citizen engagement activities around the world. The regulars show up, and through their dedication and hard work seek to instill new life back into the democratic spirit. But, in a sad discovery, the learn that the majority just don't care or seek to involve themselves in the process. How do we get ourselves of that devolving cycle? Just click the audio button below to listen to the five-minute podcast. (Views So Far 242 )

Citizen engagement: We lack ambition in design, not technology - by na
To oversimplify, if the design process of your citizen engagement programme starts somewhere that looks like this (opposite) - as happens in most bureaucracies - you are probably already on the wrong path. From this vantage point, the citizen is traditionally "a target" that you need to push your message to, or someone that needs to be surveyed about their needs to prove that they have been "engaged". But what if our starting point were to map citizen assets and expertise rather than needs? (an insight I owe to Alice Casey at Nesta - see e.g. this list of 6 things that only citizens can offer to government). And what if our design process started with citizens, meeting them where they are, rather than in the comfy walls of an office (as argued by the Mayor of Calgary in this compelling interview)? (Views So Far 428 )

5 Ways to Improve Citizen Engagement Initiatives - by na
Basic suggestions on how government could improve citizen engagement, although it assumes that "engagement" with citizens is a good thing, something that needs to be examined under a critical microscope. (Views So Far 274 )

Thoughts on Citizen Engagement Podcast: Are citizens ready? - by na
Different take on citizen engagement in this five minute audio podcast, where the questions is posed: Are citizens ready and willing to engage and participate in government? Excerpt: Political dysfunction has resulted in numerous efforts at citizen engagement across the board. Yet a sincere questions remains: are citizens mature enough to handle that responsibility? The answer to that seems fairly clear when about half the citizenry doesn't even vote. We are in an evolutionary phase in the democratic experience - a time when people who no longer trust their elected representatives don't feel the need to fill in that vacuum with their own efforts. Change is happening, but citizens are not there yet. (Views So Far 220 )

All Our Ideas: Breakthrough in Citizen Feedback Solutions | World Bank Institute (WBI) - by World Bank
A new version of All Our Ideas - a freely available citizen feedback tool that enables data collection by combining the best features of quantitative and qualitative methods has just been launched. With a new responsive design, built with the support of the World Bank Institute as part of the World Bank's Open Development Technology Alliance (ODTA), All Our Ideas enables data collection through a number of devices: desktop, laptops, tablets and mobile. Easily deployable, the tool has already been used in different environments and for different purposes, from collecting feedback from slum dwellers in Rio de Janeiro to the collaborative development of New York City's long-term sustainability plan. All Our Ideas is also the tool behind The Governor Asks initiative, winner of the internal Citizen Feedback contest for World Bank staff. The team will be showcasing the tool at the Citizen Voices: Global Conference on Citizen Engagement on March 18. (Views So Far 212 )

The Future of Public Engagement - by Lauren Alexander
The new public engagement, enabled by technology, is making participatory governing a much stronger and meaningful component for all levels of the public sector. Yesterday, nearly 100 government professionals attended an online presentation focused on the growing trend of cooperative online public engagement. You can view the presentation here. (Views So Far 220 )

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