Citizen and Stakeholder Engagement into the Digital Era:
From Spicer to #Hashtags
For a Special Issue of Canadian Public Administration
- Technology is improving government effectiveness and strengthening perceived legitimacy for government action
- Important shifts in the digital era include changing economics of attention, heightened expectations of citizens and stakeholders, a reformulation of the nature of policymaking discourse, and new governance models.
- The digital era is being built upon the the widespread deployment of networked computing
devices throughout society.
- Prior to this, citizen and stakeholder engagement was limited to various forms of public consultation exercises that relied largely on in-person dialogue, though
potentially supplemented by paper-based information dissemination (one-to-many) and
stakeholder submissions to government convenors (many-to-one).
- With the emergence of Web 2.0 or social media—many-to-many communication becomes
possible, among citizens, stakeholders, and governments, with each having more equitable
access to the communication platforms.
- E-Citizen Engagement is facilitating a number of other social and political shifts, from changing what government can expect from citizens in competing for user attention, to what citizens and stakeholders expect when engaging with policy discussions, the control of policymaking discourse, and how governance is exercised.
Different levels of citizen Engagement and how do they look like in the DEG
Sources: E-Participation Index by UNPACS (2014), IAP2 Spectrum of Participation, Ladder of Citizen Participation by Arnstein (1969)
What? This is the lowest level of citizen participation. At this level, the government keeps the public informed of their rights and responsibilities. It also provides them objective information and informs them about decisions that have been made in order to strengthen the public understanding. One could state that this level has the goal of creating public awareness.
How? Communication is done through the media, pamphlets, posters, and websites.
Drawback? Merely informing the citizens boils down to a unidirectional flow of information. There is no channel for feedback, nor negotiation for the public. Besides, the quality of the information provided is often of a low quality and superficial, which doesn’t encourage citizen participation in the end.
And in the digital era? In the online world, informing goes hand in hand with having a city website online on which citizens can stay informed. But it stops there.
What? Beyond informing the public, the government can also ask for feedback. The citizen’s opinion is valued. This is unfortunately often used as a smokescreen in order to keep the citizens happy while their opinion is not actually taken into account.
How? Consulting the citizens can be done via surveys, offline neighbourhood meetings, public hearings and focus groups.
Drawback? The main disadvantage of this method is the lack of certainty that the citizens will eventually influence the decision. The effectiveness of consulting citizens’ opinion is regularly measured by the number of citizens coming to town hall meetings or filling in a hard-to-find questionnaire. As a city, the scope of citizens you’re reaching out to is limited this way (younger and busier people are often missed out on using consultations). Also, a citizen can submit idea, but who will ever know how its idea is processed in this black box?
And in the digital era? Your residents have at least access to communicate their ideas digitally, in one way or another. The most basic degree of consulting is that they can fill in a form on the city’s website.
What? The influence of the citizen’s opinion is higher at this level. The public has more say in the decision, but ultimately the government decides how to take into consideration the advice. Nevertheless, citizens’ voices are heard and taken into account by the government.
How? Involving citizens can be done through boards, advisory or planning committees, and workshops.
Drawback? At this level, the power stays with the government. Even though they are taking into account citizens’ ideas, the government can always contest its feasibility and decide not to implement them.
And in the digital era? Involving citizens goes beyond merely consulting their opinion; i.e. a two-directional way of engagement is established. Often times, a voting mechanism is used to let other citizens assess the ideas of citizens.
What? At this degree of participation, the power is shared between the government and the public as if they were partners. Namely, they collaborate on feasible solutions. The planning and decision-making is acted upon together in order to take into account both opinions and advices to come to a final decision.
How? This form of participation can be undertaken via joint policy boards, citizen advisory committees or online participation platforms.
Drawback? More opinions to take into account can slow down the decision-making process. Yet, there are many (online) means available to process the rich diversity of ideas in an resource-efficient way.
And in the digital era? In comparison to the involvement level, a collaboration between citizens and (city) government encompasses the possibility to give feedback to each others’ ideas. In the first place, citizens can discuss the ideas of fellow ideas. Next to that, the government gives feedback to the ideas of citizens. Although this might seem a tedious task at the beginning, most of it can be automated if using the right tool.
What? The highest level of citizen participation is when the citizen has the dominant decision over the government. Citizen have the veto right. Therefore, the government will have to implement the decision of the citizens.
How? Citizen juries, ballots and delegated decisions are means to empower the citizens.
Drawbacks? Level 5 represents the highest possible level of citizen participation, but it is rarely reached. This is often due to the extensive number of resources that is needed to put such a form of participation in place.
And in the digital era? From an online perspective, the empowerment of citizens is action-oriented and gives them the means to start executing.