Citizen engagement is defined as the two-way interaction or communication between citizens and the government. This process is continuing to play an instrumental role in the way human settlements are being governed. Decision-making processes are enhanced by engaging those most affected and intimately connected with societal challenges. As much as traditional means such as public forums, town hall meetings, etc. still have relevance, more innovative and convenient forms of citizen engagement are advancing the ways in which citizens can partake in governance procedures.
Despite the variations in the form in which citizen engagement may take place, it should ideally be characterized by a clear purpose and goal, clear structure and process, documented influence on decision-making processes, and present opportunities for inclusive and continuous representation. The major components of citizen engagement are illustrated in the figure below.
Main Design Components of Citizen Engagement (Daher E., 2021)
Citizen Engagement Value Model (BABLE, 2021)
The relevance of open forms of communication between government and society lies in the efficient delivery of services, goods, and information. As urban communities become increasingly reliant on the convenience, comfort and efficiency that come with digitalisation, there is now a greater expectation that more intelligent ways will be used to ensure the needs of the populations are met. The urgency with which to effectively communicate and respond to the citizens in real-time and during a quickly evolving situation has been undoubtedly demonstrated during the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are several noticeable governmental initiatives being used to support citizen engagement. Examples are provided below.
- Gamification: commonly refers to the introduction of gaming elements to serious, mundane, and non-gaming context to induce engagement and motivation (Hassan, 2019). These gaming elements include in-person participatory approaches such as the utilisation of Lego blocks, drawing competitions and virtual/augmented reality to redesign physical spaces. Gamification is also commonplace in E-participation in the form of web-based challenges as well as virtual and augmented reality tools.
- E-Services: This refers to the use of ICT and applications to facilitate the delivery of services, as well as provide the opportunity for communication with citizens through an online platform. The acronym XaaS refers to everything as a service or anything as a service and refers to any of an increasing number of services provided online including the governmental provision of services (Novotny et al., 2014). These services cover a wide range of fields including transportation, public utilities, social care services, public safety, and disaster management. Emerging applications are extended to diverse fields such as: smart grid, smart home, security, building automation, remote health and wellness monitoring, location-aware applications, mobile payments, and other machine-to-machine (M2M) applications (Novotny et al., 2014)
- City Dashboards: city dashboards use visual analytics e.g., charts, graphs, 3D models and augmented landscapes to display information about the performance, structure, pattern, and trends of cities, which are used to increase public knowledge and opportunities for counter-narratives (Kitchin, 2016). Data from sensors, smart metering systems, cameras, geographically positioned systems and cloud computing are being integrated with dashboards to improve decision outcomes, gather real-time information, and enable modelling of urban flows or community behaviour.
- Online engagement platform: As part of the E-services and Dashboards, municipalities feature online social applications to capture a wider audience and open channels to directly engage with elected representatives. With the ability to contribute to the democratic process from the comfort of home, more members of the community can share their thoughts and ideas, request service, as well as file reports and complaints including elderly and disabled citizens with mobility barriers (Nelimarkka, et al., 2014).
- Living Labs: A living lab emphasizes the roles of user involvement, prototyping, testing, and validating in the creation of new technologies, services, products, or systems in real-life settings (Engez, et al., 2021). Therefore, it capitalises on user-centric, open dialogue and iteration processes as well as government-business-academia-people collaboration to achieve innovative outcomes. Living labs are distinguished from other open-innovation ecosystems by allowing users to improve the technologies that are being co-created and tested with other stakeholders in real-life environments (Nyström, et al., 2014)
Citizen Engagement Stakeholder Map (BABLE, 2021)
Institutions and the governance of society benefit substantially from empowered citizenry. Pro-active and people-oriented administration and policies, on-demand participation, and co-design processes are growing positive trends observed during the 2020 United Nations E-Government Survey (United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2020). These new insights from behavioural science, coupled with the recent advances in digital technologies, are leading governments worldwide to pursue citizen engagement more seriously (Chew, 2019).
There have been worldwide initiatives that apply different and highly complementary approaches to support stakeholder collaboration as illustrated in the figure below. A few notable examples are the United Kingdom’s Government Digital Services, Singapore’s Government Technology Agency, the United States’ Office of Management and Budget, the Canadian Digital Services and the European Commission’s Design for Europe.
Examples of Digital Participation Platforms Provided around the World (Chew, 2019)
In emerging economies, the digital divide is often cited as a prevalent issue affecting the level of digital participation as a larger percentage of the population has restricted access to ICT. Nonetheless, countries from the global south are part of this digital wave with a particular focus on the use of social media networking tools as a communication portal with governing authorities. Below, are the observed trends on the number and type of portals available to countries by geographical regions.
Number of Countries Offering Selected Features for Online Interaction by Region (United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2020)
Globally, in 2021, almost one-third of citizens (32%) ranked more use of digital technologies in the provision of public services as one of the top three priorities for governments to improve the quality of services (Bertrand, 2021). Governments are, therefore, increasing investment in technological infrastructure and tools. The 2020 Harvey Nash/KPMG CIO Survey reported that government investment in technology increased by 5% globally at the start of the pandemic due to the urgency for government organizations to transform their citizen-focused strategies, invest in security, and move a significant portion of their workforce to remote working environments (KPMG, 2020). The savings expected with the use of innovative engagement approaches will also drive wider uptake. The savings from the digital government services provided in Estonia, for example, is estimated to save 2,8 million hours of work, or 2% of GDP (Hunink, 2018).
The cost implications of participatory approaches vary considerably. There are unavoidable costs associated with administrative staff and other supporting resources dedicated to supporting the engagement process. Face-to-face interaction is characterised as a more expensive venture because of the expense associated with organisational, recruitment, and hosting costs, e.g., the costs associated with the use of hosting spaces, office supplies, promotional activities and consumables including transportation. The cost of online communication is expected to be significantly lower, but consideration must be extended to the size, features, essential product plan and other platform development necessities as well the required human resource. The figure below provides an idea of the average costs associated with different modes of engagement.
Costs related to the different modes of engagement (Cuau, C., 2019); (Citizen Lab, 2016)
Citizen engagement may take various forms:
- Driven by the government VS. Driven by citizen-led initiatives
- Proactive VS. Reactive: Proactive is the case in which citizens contribute to intended policy formulation and Infrastructural development whereas reactive is the opportunity to provide feedback on already implemented decisions or projects. Reality however reveals that these two are largely intertwined.
- One-off activity VS. Recurrent activity
- Open Participation VS. Closed Participation: Open participation allows all citizens to freely participate whereas closed participation is conducted only with selected or invited members of society e.g., citizen jury
Data and Standards
With the emphasis on open and holistic governance, there are a multitude of data and standards being developed to encourage community engagement. A few are described below:
- The National Standards for Community Engagement developed by the Scottish Community Development Centre relate to good-practice principles designed to improve and guide the process of community engagement. There are seven guiding principles: inclusion, support, planning, working together, method, communication, and impact.
- The E-Participation Index is an index focused on the availability of online services in the provision of information by governments to citizens.
- UNICEF’s Minimum Quality Standards and Indicators for Community Engagement: defines community engagement principles, key actions, goals and benchmarks to provide guidance for community engagement approaches across all sectors and for all countries.
- The European Commission’s Digital Competence Framework for Citizens provides an online self-assessment test, which allows people to measure their digital competence and identify knowledge gaps.
- Aarhus Convention grants the public the right to access information, justice, and public participation in governmental decision-making processes.
- The Protocol on Strategic Environmental Assessment provides for extensive public participation in the development and application of impact assessments for infrastructural projects and policy development.