DIRECTOR'S ANALYSIS: Community Engagement
By Stephen Goldsmith and Katherine Hillenbrand
December 12, 2012 | In a post on Next American City, Neeraj Mehta argues in favor of a new model of community engagement, writing that â€śthere is too much placation, manipulation, and tokenism in our engagement efforts.â€ť The necessity of citizen engagement has entered the government dialogue at all levels. However, as Mehta correctly notes, engagement for its own sake is not meaningful and is a waste of time for all involved. Efforts to collect input from residents are futile if their ideas and feedback are not truly incorporated into government decision-making.
Mehta asks, â€śhow do we move up the ladder of community engagement from disempowered opinion-gathering to collective problem-solving and shared decision-making?â€ť New technology, increasing connectivity, and the burgeoning number of mobile devices allow residents to communicate with government to a far greater degree than before.
The commercial sector has long incorporated digitally crowdsourced ideas. For example, MyStarbucksIdeas has generated concepts implemented into the Starbucks stores. Earlier this year, Lays held a crowdsourced contest for new chip flavors. When Lays held the same competition in Spain, people submitted over 350,000 ideas. If such an abundance of ideas exists for how to improve a fried potato, imagine what people could envision to improve their communities and tackle the copious challenges faced by municipal governments.
Of course, community participation has always been a part of democratic governance, but it has often been limited by its analog nature â€“ in-person town halls, written letters, and petitions to representatives. People frequently do not have the time or inclination to make such significant effort, meaning such channels engage only a fraction of the community. Mobile devices and social media promise to dramatically lower the barriers to entry for idea collection and open up interaction with government to a much larger segment of the population.
There are already many examples of cities using technology-enabled methods to involve citizens in ideation, ranging from the decidedly low-tech -- Portlandâ€™s mayor put out a press release asking residents to email in their ideas about police candidate screening â€“ to advanced online platforms like San Franciscoâ€™s ImproveSF. As part of Chicago Ideas Week this September, the city asked residents to tweet their ideas for solving gun violence with the hashtag #whatifchicago. The top tweets were then debated by a panel of experts. In Louisville, KY, Mayor Greg Fischer hosted an event in September that allowed residents to move around buildings printed with a 3D printer to envision the city in 25 years.
All of these ideas have the potential to fall into the trap of engagement qua engagement: ideas from residents could disappear into the black hole of a civic servantâ€™s inbox with no further incentive to actually act on them. A consequential effort to collect resident ideas must contain a means of holding officials accountable for actually seriously considering and responding to these ideas. Having a submission platform with visible contributions is the first step, along with functionality to allow residents to vote and comment on the ideas of others. Public responses by officials to top submissions add critical transparency to the process. Residents must see officials paying attention to them, whether it be through enacting their ideas from these contests or by responding to a tweet, in order to find contributing ideas worthwhile.
Technology provides the answer to Mehtaâ€™s question; the ideal of â€ścollective problem-solving and shared decision-makingâ€ť is entirely feasible with these new virtual tools. Cities must apply them with transparency and accountability to fully realize the potential of crowdsourcing.
Stephen Goldsmith is the Director of the Mayoral Performance Analytics Initiative and the Daniel Paul Professor of Practice at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
Katherine Hillenbrand is the research assistant for the Mayoral Performance Analytics Initiative.