Back in 2010, the White House launched Challenge.gov, a platform provided by the GSA that gave federal agencies the opportunity to create contests aimed at increasing public participation in the federal government. The idea of soliciting citizen input certainly isn’t a new one—state, local, and national governments have been using paper forms, websites, and (now) social media to generate ideas from citizens for decades. But in an age when there is rampant distrust in government and constant complaints about transparency and decisions made by a chosen few, countries around the world have gotten increasingly creative in the area of citizen engagement, with most making it a two-way street. There are far too many of these awesome programs to include in one post, but here, I highlight a few of my favorites.
Since coming to office, President Obama has been an ardent supporter of involving citizens in the process of government (call it Big Block of Cheese Day for the modern era). Most federal agencies have come up with their own ways to solicit public input or expertise on policy and program priorities. Some of these include:
- We the People: You can say what you want about it, but I still really like it. Sure, it has some flaws (and has invited its fair share of criticism for some of the petitions that appear and are responded to), but it’s a nice way to see, especially on a nationwide level, what is most important to citizens.
- The National Archive’s Citizen Archivist Dashboard: Here, everyone is invited to help in transcribing historical documents, adding personal knowledge or photos to articles about historic events, and adding tags to images and records. The goal is to get all of NARA’s billions of documents online (in a way that doesn’t break the bank).
- If nature is your thing, the National Phenology Network runs Nature’s Notebook, a website that invites amateur and professional naturalists to submit information on observations of plants and animals with a goal of creating large data sets that can inform scientists about changes in our environment.
- Are you concerned about the number of asteroids hurtling around in space? Then NASA has a program for you. Known as the Asteroid Grand Challenge Series, it is comprised of various tasks that invite anyone to develop new digital products that can, among other things, help NASA locate all of the asteroids that might pose a threat to Earth and determine how to deal with them.
- Each year, NASA holds its International Space Apps Challenge, which gives developers around the world a two-day period to create apps that respond to the agency’s priorities. In 2014, one of the challenge winners presented SkySnapper, which takes photos of the sky to measure air quality. These crowd-sourced images would be mapped to help scientists assess air quality issues and monitor them over time.
The nation has a history of involving citizens in policymaking, however, the budgetary process has been tightly controlled by the central government. This leads to a number of problems, including a lack of transparency, a failure of the government to align spending with the needs of the citizenry, and poorly implemented projects. The lack of trust between citizens and the government led to the creation of the Grassroots Participatory Budgeting program. This national government-funded project invites local governments and civic organizations to bring together interested citizens to discuss their community priorities. In turn, the central government funds a variety of programs based on these priorities; more than $300,000 has been committed to each city or municipality that presents accepted ideas. Because of the government’s investment, more than 8,000 groups have begun participating in the program.
In the UK, a wide-ranging group of citizens is invited to participate in dialogue, events, interviews, and activities with policymakers and scientists all aimed at determining whether or how certain scientific projects should move forward. For example, the hotly contested issue of using human or animal embryos in research was brought before a group of citizens and scientists (who were recruited to ensure diversity) to review public opinion of this issue. After an open meeting, opinion poll, public dialogue, and written consultation, it was determined that the Department of Health’s Fertilisation and Embryology Authority would be allowed to move forward using embryos in research, at least in principle. According to the government, the process is not only meant to solicit public opinion, it is also intended to advance public knowledge and understanding of key issue areas.
If you’ve ever owned a home, you know how frustrating it can be when you get your property valuation. How a value is assigned isn’t very transparent, and the objection process can be difficult. In The Netherlands, the Tilburg municipality set out to work with homeowners on their property valuations in an effort to reduce the number of objects received each year. Instead of waiting until the end of the valuation process to deal with citizen objections, the MinjWOZ project brings together citizens who help to determine the parameters that should be set on property valuations and correct any items that seem unrealistic to be included in the valuation process. By involving citizens in the design phase, the municipality has reduced its number of objections by 40%.
You can probably readily note that all of the above programs are easy for citizens to participate in, hit on a specific need for the government and community, and invite input that is used to directly impact this need. All of these are key components of effective citizen engagement programs. If you’re interested in learning more about how to improve citizen engagement, check out this post (GOVLOOP LINK).
Is your agency trying to get citizens interested and invested in your programs/projects? Tell us in the comments!