Real citizen engagement: 3 reasons, 3 successes, 3 tools

Wed, 2016-09-07 22:20 -- SCC Staff

Engaged citizens are so critical to the success of a smart city that we’ve devoted this three-part series to developing it. We’ve covered what works and what doesn’t. Today, we wrap up this series with three things: three reasons why you need to get started on citizen engagement today, three successful projects worth emulating and three tools that can help.

Cities are made up of people. Use the tools to help ensure your city puts people first. — Jesse Berst

Three reasons to focus on citizen engagement
1. More money for your city. Evidence continues to show that citizen engagement, citizens participating in local government public policy issues, leads to increased tax compliance and higher tax revenues for cities.

2. More data. Citizen engagement data is powerful.  Data includes the ideas suggested by citizens, the critiques of policies and plans, the data directly created through polls and social media, and the data indirectly created through page visits, traffic counters, field rentals, etc.  To be effective, such data must be continuous and to be continuous, it needs to meet the needs of all parties who participate.  Run it through some algorithms and this data can help managers predict future problems, find new efficiencies or improve current services.  Clean the data, apply privacy protections and selling this data can become a new revenue source for the city.

3. More livable cities. Citizens happy with and engaged in their local government promote government and community benefits in countless indirect ways such as locating a new business (like software startups or craft breweries), initiating a new non-profit service for the disadvantaged (like a food bank or a senior center), organizing a new arts or entertainment annual event (like a “First Night” celebration or a “Highline” type reclamation of an underused public space), etc. 

Three engagement ideas worth emulating
1. King-miCity. Residents of King Township in Ontario, Canada can use this app developed by Council Associate Partner Imex Systems to conveniently access information on waste and recycling, as well as local news and events. The app also allows residents to submit service requests to the city, along with a photograph of the problem and its geo-coordinates.

2. Toronto Cycling app. Toronto, Canada has an app with the dual purpose of enabling cyclists to track their rides with GPS and help the city of Toronto improve current cycling infrastructure and plan for future cycling investment. The app allows users to provide trip information including purpose, route, date and time that will be analyzed to assist in determining high demand corridors used by cyclists, identifying neighborhood links and giving city planners a better sense of how cyclists adapt to changes to cycling infrastructure over time.

3. A free ride for your thoughts. Calgary, Canada, has turned a city bus into a mobile focus group. People can ride for free if they agree to short interviews and discussions with city officials who are gathering citizen comments on various city initiatives.

Three engagement tools worth exploring
The first is ThunderMaps, which helps city departments share citizen insights and gives residents a platform to engage on issues they care most about and track progress.

Insight sharing is critically important. Individual city departments often solicit feedback, but they rarely share it with other departments. The usual result is that a small group of citizens is polled over and over and over again, giving the city an incomplete view of the public’s opinion and giving those polled a bad case of survey fatigue. ThunderMaps, supported by the EU’s Horizons 2020 program, includes a centralized calendar and establishes a platform that would allow the right people access to the conversations.

For their part, citizens can select the types of events that interest them, track their chosen types of events and contribute their own information to the events’ database by sending in reports or using social media.  Citizens can get feedback on their information by seeing the changes in the software dashboard and they can see that their suggestions for new ideas are recorded.  

There are also two great resources that can help provide guidance as you build your city’s citizen engagement strategy.

1. Using Online Tools to Engage—and be Engaged by—The Public, by Matt Leighninger, Executive Director of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium, produced by IBM Center for The Business of Government.

2. ICMA’s Center for Management Strategies Civic Engagement Recommended Resource List and related materials.

As you develop your strategy, however, don't neglect these key principles: transparency and legitimacy for government, education on governance and social welfare for the citizenry, a “de-silo” tool for connecting separate city departments, governmental efficiency at a reasonable ROI, and democratization of a civic vision.

Smart Cities Readiness Guide …
Check out the Smart People chapter of the Council’s Smart Cities Readiness Guide for innovative approaches to encourage broad participation in city decisions. Smart cities encourage all city stakeholders to develop a vision for the city they want to live in.