Crisis as Opportunity: Fostering Inclusive Public Engagement in Local Government

Ashley Labosier at Mercatus Center: “In addressing local challenges, such as budget deficits, aging infrastructure, workforce development, opioid addiction, homelessness, and disaster preparedness, a local government must take into account the needs, preferences, and values of its entire community, not just politically active groups. However, research shows that citizens who participate in council meetings or public hearings rarely reflect the diversity of the community in terms of age, race, or opinion, and traditional public comment periods seldom add substantively to local policy decisions. It is therefore clear that reform of public engagement in local governments is long overdue.

An opportunity for such a reform is emerging out of the tragedy of the COVID-19 pandemic. As local governments cope with the crisis, they should strengthen their relationship with their residents by adopting measures that are inclusive and sensitive to all the constituencies in their jurisdiction.

This work starts by communicating clearly both the measures adopted to combat COVID-19 and the guidelines for citizen compliance and by making sure this information is accessible and disseminated throughout the entire community. During the crisis, building trust with the community will also entail restraining from advancing projects that are not instrumental to crisis management, particularly controversial projects. Diligence and prudence during the crisis should create the opportunity to try and test new forms of dialogue with citizens.

These new forms of engagement should increase the legitimacy and public support for government decisions and cultivate a civic culture where residents no longer see themselves as customers vying for services, but as citizens with ownership in the democratic process and its outcomes. In this brief, I propose ways to integrate digital technology tools into those new forms of public engagement.

Integrating Digital Technologies into Public Engagement

Over the past 15 years a new civic tech industry has emerged to assist local governments with public engagement. Videos and podcasts increase access to guidelines, rules, and procedures published by local governments. Real-time language translation is possible thanks to machine-learning algorithms that are relatively easy to integrate into online help lines. Government web portals increase access to official information, particularly for those with limited mobility or with visual or hearing impairments. These and other digital platforms have the potential to increase citizens’ participation, particularly when the costs—such as transportation or childcare—keep people from attending public meetings.

Indeed, tech solutions have the potential to increase citizen participation. During a decade of working with local governments on technology and public engagement, I have observed technologies that promote inclusiveness in public participation and technologies that simply magnify the voice of groups traditionally engaged in politics. Drawing from this experience, I offer local governments and agencies five recommendations to integrate technology into their public engagement programs….(More)”.