Miskolc, Hungary, is a mid-size industrial city that has taken on a number of civic improvement projects, among them planning a public square as a focal point for the city and an expanded mass transit system.
Deputy Mayor Péter Pfliegler and other city leaders understood from the beginning that engaging citizens in all steps of the process -- from planning to implementation -- was essential. -- Doug Peeples
In an interview with Remo Urban, a project encouraging adoption of a sustainable urban regeneration model to help European cities become smart cities, Pfliegler shared his thoughts on why he and city leaders take citizen engagement so seriously and how they do it.
For the city leaders, the idea of encouraging citizens to take an active, hands-on interest in improvement projects is effective outreach because it improved the connection between citizens and government, and reminded leaders they weren't undertaking them just to keep their jobs. "This service (the projects) cannot be carried out well without spending time and effort to meet with local people, listening to their needs, problems, preferences and remarks, as well as asking for their opinion and ideas on various planned developments. Never forgetting that, in fact, citizens are the final beneficiaries of urban improvements."
Strengthen the connection with transparency
When information is presented to citizens fairly and their opinions are taken into account, Pfliegler said engagement is far more likely to be successful. He added that transparency is particularly critical when unpopular decisions are announced.
Citizens have great ideas, too
"Additionally, one more advantage of citizen involvement from the perspective of the mayor's office: no one is flawless and unerring and no one knows everything, even working with a great team. Considering and implementing complementary or new useful ideas coming from citizens can be more beneficial for the city than predicted in the original scenario.
"In this regard, several positive examples have already been encountered in Miskolc and we see these projects are more and more accepted and supported by the residents." Another benefit of bringing citizens into the complete process of planning, developing and implementing a project is that it offers them a sense of ownership, personal responsibility and commitment to the projects they worked on alongside their leaders.
Pfliegler also warned that if cities go ahead with unpopular projects or services citizens hadn't asked for and don't want they will likely be a waste of time and money because they will be neglected or actively opposed. That may be common sense, but worth repeating.
Dealing with inconvenience
He also said engaging citizens on the inconveniences they will encounter during project construction -- noise, dust and traffic snarls for example -- was another critical part of ensuring a healthy and continuing relationship between city officials and citizens.
Tools for engagement
Miskolc city leaders relied heavily on public forums and other similar venues for discussing and shaping proposed projects and services as well as online voting and feedback, and it worked for them. But what if your city is not at all like Miskolc? Maybe it's more segmented into identifiable separate communities that make up a city, or is simply so large that other ways for communicating are necessary to successfully engage citizens and understand what they really want. What if your city is considering projects or services that will affect specific geographic areas or a specific demographic such as seniors or young commuting professionals?
Fortunately, there are a number of solutions to choose from -- and you're probably already familiar with one of them. Council Lead Partner Microsoft's CityNext is a partnership of companies offering technological help for cities working on smart cities projects. One simple solution for citizen engagement and other uses is Microsoft's Skype for Business. Yes, the Skype you know about and have probably used -- but with more features in addition to audio and video calling: instant messaging, online meetings and sharing capabilities. Microsoft recommends it as a platform for town hall meetings. And it's affordable. The basic version is a free download.
City governments that need detailed information about what citizens are thinking and what they want can turn to an IBM offering, Social Media Analytics Software as a Service. The cloud-based service for organizations, including cities, gives users the ability to learn about and evaluate the social media impact of their campaigns and other communications. The results are available on configurable charts and dashboards. In addition to enabling cities to better target their campaigns and communications, the software-as-a-service could cut down on employee time and the cost of on-site software. Also, it's available on a monthly subscription basis.
Doug Peeples is a Portland, Oregon-based writer specializing in technology and energy. Follow @smartccouncil on Twitter.