Three Ways Government Organizations Can Better Engage Citizens

Democracy is built around the idea of equality, the idea that all citizens can participate equally and exercise their power through elected officials. For a true democracy to thrive, citizens must be willing to engage. They must vote, participate and collaborate with government at all levels. Otherwise, the model falls flat on its face.

Not too long ago, officials interacted with citizens solely by setting up microphones at council meetings and encouraging feedback via a generic email address. However, in today’s digital world, the meaning of “citizen engagement” is changing.

Most people today agree that citizen engagement is not a singular “event.” Rather, it’s a constant, participatory process that includes dialog and feedback around government decisions. Today, many of these conversations are NOT happening in person. Instead, citizens are deferring to their mobile phones and tablets, relying on applications and websites that allow them to easily and quickly provide their feedback.

Given this shift in how citizens like to engage and provide feedback, it’s now up to government organizations to shift their processes so they too become engaging and collaborative, matching the needs of their citizens. So, where do you start? We believe that there are three areas that can lead to successful citizen engagement in the 21st century.

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 inviting and capturing conversations, you are proactively interacting with citizens and soliciting feedback. And, by getting a large number of citizens to passively offer information, you’re better able to collect data and act on findings—rather than wait for someone to give you feedback at the next council meeting. By that time, it may be too late.

2. Integrate citizen feedback into all processes

Integrating citizen feedback into as many processes as possible is crucial. As your internal team gathers information and sets the scope of different projects, you can use this newly captured citizen feedback to drive a number of decisions including:

  • 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.

Traditionally, “hacking” got a bad rap, as it used to relate to cybersecurity. However, hacking has now become a term that speaks to capturing knowledge, as demonstrated by 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 ideas and encourage continuous improvement

It sounds rudimentary, but simply sharing ideas and results with citizens and promoting constant improvement is invaluable. 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.

Moving Forward

The term “citizen engagement” will constantly evolve due to the advent of new technology and other inevitable changes that occur when society progresses. It’s important for government organizations to be willing to engage with citizens in the way they like to engage, whether that’s through their website, through Twitter or through another application entirely. There are countless channels through which citizens and government can communicate and exchange dialog. And, the more open organizations are to these various channels, the more successful and productive the community will be as a whole.

Additional Resources

Center for Digital Government Report: A Community for Collaboration and Innovation

Quiz: How Advanced is Your Citizen Engagement?

About the Author

Katie Burke is Government Program Strategist at Laserfiche. She responsible for creating a variety of resources to educate the state and local government audience, including webinars, articles and white papers on the benefits of electronic document and records management. Within Laserfiche, Katie serves as an industry expert and state and local government advocate.You can follow her on Twitter @katieburke47.

This post originally appeared on the Laserfiche ECM Blog, and has been modified for the purposes of this audience.

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