Citizen participation is at the foundation of democratic values, and is a fascinating area of study. When citizen participation programs are implemented effectively, more citizens are brought into the decision making process, and allows government to be more responsive to community needs. Additionally, citizen engagement initiatives have the ability to build community, grow leaders, and introduce a more collaborative style of government.
Yet, citizen engagement programs can have a dark side, leading to gridlock, lack of consensus, abuses to power, manipulation of facts, or the politicalization of issues. In many instances, efforts to improve citizen engagement can actually lead to further disillusion, increased empathy, and highlight serious resource deficiencies within the community. Below are a few ideas on how to make citizen participation work:
Provide a Platform for Innovation and Engagement - Make it Easy
Platforms like data.gov offer the chance for citizens to actively engage and create meaningful applications for broad distribution. For citizens looking to become more engaged in their community, they should be empowered and engagement should be easy for them. Citizens should be able to quickly retrieve data, instantly submit forms, and quickly find information they need.
Empower the Citizenry with Decision Making Power
Neighborhood groups, councils, and or community activists, need to have some type of authority and power in the decision making process. Without any authority or ownership of the issues, there will be challenges around implementation. Likely, these citizens are closest to issues, and can provide the best insights on how to allocate funds, understand cultural issues, and develop partnerships within the community.
Develop a Comprehensive Communications Strategy
In today’s world, it is so important for government agencies to realize there are dozens of different engagement channels for citizens. For citizen engagement to truly work, government needs to create a comprehensive communications strategy. This means the ability reach and broadcast to all citizens on a routine basis. This could include email, social media, advertisements, door to door, attending in person events, SMS, or hosting informational sessions.
Provide Incentives for Government Employees and Citizens
For citizen engagement to really work, there needs to be incentives for both citizens and government employees. Often, we focus on how do we incentive citizens to participate, but, government employees should be incentivized as well towards increased citizen engagement initiatives. There are tons of fascinating studies on what kinds of incentives work best for employees. Everything from spot bonuses, providing flex time, to awards and employee recognition. Ultimately, this is a decision that requires a manager to invest the time to focus on what will motivate their team, this could be a hybrid of options, and is also contingent on budgetary and legal restrictions on how government can incentivize employees.
Provide Sufficient Staffing, Resources, and Success Metrics
Clear goals, objectives and measurements must be identified to track citizen engagement initiatives. Also, there needs to be proper staffing and resources allocated to the initiative. Without this, apathy, disillusion, and decreased trust in government can occur, as citizens do not witness any tangible or positive impacts through their increased engagements. It's also essential to retain a sense of fairness as to how resources are allocated across a city. Programs instituted in pockets or certain neighborhoods can be seen as discriminatory, paternalistic, and unfair.
Citizen engagement requires a very collaborative approach, balanced by setting clear guidelines, goals and outcomes for the community. No matter the mediums in which citizens engage with government, there will always be challenges of competing interests, conflicting strategies, and differing perspectives on what is right or best for a community. Above all, citizen engagement programs will always be challenged with sustainability. Although these challenges exist, technology is moving at such a rapid pace government will continue to become more collaborative, and rely on technology to deliver new mediums of citizen engagement.
What do you think? What are some steps to improve citizen engagement initiatives?
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