José Quádrio Alves

Citizen engagement is a key to future cities

Whenever citizen engagement is discussed with local governments, it stands out as a critical objective a Holy Grail so to speak. This is because it is an important lever in solving societal challenges, whether by having citizens participate more in decision making, contribute their innovative ideas, or organize efforts that promote economic development.

What do we mean by citizen engagement?

The first stage in citizen engagement is where citizens play the basic role of choosing their governments by voting. The second stage is active participation in discussing major topics relevant for their communities. The third stage is contributing to the decision making for those topics whenever possible.

But citizen engagement is more than just participating in government. It also includes engagement between citizens themselves to create ideas and organize initiatives along three different dimensions:

  • Economic, such as launching new businesses
  • Social, such as supporting local service organizations
  • Environmental, such as advocating the creation of a new park

This type of engagement may make the most difference in advancing the future cities vision.

Why is citizen engagement such a big challenge?

Modern urban lifestyles do not facilitate citizen engagement. When people commute between one city to work and another community to live, and spend a significant part of their day in long traffic queues, it is difficult to find time to participate in either community.

Younger citizens often desire to live and work in the same location, but this usually is done by adopting more individual lifestyle patterns, where social media plays a significant role and sharing assets like houses or cars are becoming trends.

A lack of connection to a community is particularly evident in younger generations, and the traditional communication approaches used by many governments do not help. Finding ways to tap into newer lifestyle patterns to increase citizen participation will be needed to advance the future cities vision.

Why is greater citizen engagement needed?

The number of citizens participating in the democratic process is declining in many places, with many younger citizens never having exercised their fundamental right to vote. Motivating and making it easier for citizens to exercise these rights is a pillar of citizen participation.

Beyond voting, citizen engagement in major decisions at the local level, by proposing or even building solutions themselves, can be a powerful source of innovation and ideas. Since innovation is strongly related to economic development, creating conditions that make it easier for citizens to participate in community life may result in better decision making, stronger economic development and a better life for all citizens.

How can citizen engagement be improved?

Information is the basis for citizen participation and innovation. So, the starting point for local governments is making available useful information (more than just data) to their citizens.

Many local governments are now starting Open Data initiatives, providing non-confidential “data sets” to the public and enabling citizens or companies to transform big data into insights and present information in different forms, such as via mobile applications.

New tools are being used to make it easier to participate in the democratic process. As an example, New South Wales in Australia implemented a new electronic voting solution, currently the largest system of this type in the world.

Citizen participation also can have immediate impact in areas such as public safety. In the Netherlands, for example, more than 1.5 million citizens are helping to create a safer society through active participation.

Some local governments are using digital tools to enable citizens to submit proposals and influence subjects discussed in council meetings. A great example is the Estonian Volis system. A more informal example of collecting citizen ideas and suggestions is the system built in the City of Paris – Madame la Maire J’ai une idée. Other tools are incorporating the social media experience as well as gaming technology to improve citizen engagement and foster collaboration. A good example is CGI’s Participation Next platform being piloted in some municipalities in the Netherlands.

In summary, citizen engagement is an important way for local governments to foster innovation and better decision making. Digital technology can be a key lever in achieving these objectives, especially targeting younger citizens who may feel more motivated to participate with access to the kinds of tools they are used to using in their daily lives.

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