Power to the people: how cities can use digital technology to engage and empower citizens

Tom Saunders at NESTA: “You’re sat in city hall one day and you decide it would be a good idea to engage residents in whatever it is you’re working on – next year’s budget, for example, or the redevelopment of a run down shopping mall. How do you go about it?

In the past, you might have held resident meetings and exhibitions where people could view proposed designs or talk to city government employees. You can still do that today, but now there’s digital: apps, websites and social media. So you decide on a digital engagement strategy: you build a website or you run a social media campaign inviting feedback on your proposals. What happens next?

Two scenarios: 1) You get 50 responses, mostly from campaign groups and local political activists; or 2) you receive such a huge number of responses that you don’t know what to do with them. Besides which, you don’t have the power or budget to implement 90 per cent of the suggestions and neither do you have the time to tell people why their proposals will be ignored. The main outcome of your citizen engagement exercise seems to be that you have annoyed the very people you were trying to get buy in from. What went wrong?

Four tips for digital engagement

With all the apps and platforms out there, it’s hard to make sense of what is going on in the world of digital tools for citizen engagement. It seems there are three distinct activities that digital tools enable: delivering council services online – say applying for a parking permit; using citizen generated data to optimise city government processes and engaging citizens in democratic exercises. In Conneced Councils Nesta sets out what future models of online service delivery could look like. Here I want to focus on the ways that engaging citizens with digital technology can help city governments deliver services more efficiently and improve engagement in democratic processes.

  1. Resist the temptation to build an app…

  1. Think about what you want to engage citizens for…

Sometimes engagement is statutory: communities have to be shown new plans for their area. Beyond this, there are a number of activities that citizen engagement is useful for. When designing a citizen engagement exercise it may help to think which of the following you are trying to achieve (note: they aren’t mutually exclusive):

  • Better understanding of the facts

If you want to use digital technologies to collect more data about what is happening in your city, you can buy a large number of sensors and install them across the city, to track everything from people movements to how full bins are. A cheaper and possibly more efficient way for cities to do this might involve working with people to collect this data – making use of the smartphones that an increasing number of your residents carry around with them. Prominent examples of this included flood mapping in Jakarta using geolocated tweets and pothole mapping in Boston using a mobile app.

For developed world cities, the thought of outsourcing flood mapping to citizens might fill government employees with horror. But for cities in developing countries, these technologies present an opportunity, potentially, for them to leapfrog their peers – to reach a level of coverage now that would normally require decades of investment in infrastructure to achieve. This is currently a hypothetical situation: cities around the world are only just starting to pilot these ideas and technologies and it will take a number of years before we know how useful they are to city governments.

  • Generating better ideas and options

The examples above involve passive data collection. Moving beyond this to more active contributions, city governments can engage citizens to generate better ideas and options. There are numerous examples of this in urban planning – the use of Minecraft by the UN in Nairobi to collect and visualise ideas for the future development of the community, or the Carticipe platform in France, which residents can use to indicate changes they would like to see in their city on a map.

It’s all very well to create a digital suggestion box, but there is a lot of evidence that deliberation and debate lead to much better ideas. Platforms like BetterReykjavic include a debate function for any idea that is proposed. Based on feedback, the person who submitted the idea can then edit it, before putting it to a public vote – only then, if the proposal gets the required number of votes, is it sent to the city council for debate.

  • Better decision making

As well as enabling better decision making by giving city government employees, better data and better ideas, digital technologies can give the power to make decisions directly to citizens. This is best encapsulated by participatory budgeting – which involves allowing citizens to decide how a percentage of the city budget is spent. Participatory budgeting emerged in Brazil in the 1980s, but digital technologies help city governments reach a much larger audience. ‘Madame Mayor, I have an idea’ is a participatory budgeting process that lets citizens propose and vote on ideas for projects in Paris. Over 20,000 people have registered on the platform and the pilot phase of the project received over 5000 submissions.

  1. Remember that there’s a world beyond the internet…

  1. Pick the right question for the right crowd…

When we talk to city governments and local authorities, they express a number of fears about citizen engagement: Fear of relying on the public for the delivery of critical services, fear of being drowned in feedback and fear of not being inclusive – only engaging with those that are online and motivated. Hopefully, thinking through the issues discussed above may help alleviate some of these fears and make city government more enthusiastic about digital engagement….(More)