While increasing numbers of governments at all levels are embracing the use of new media tools for public participation, there’s less understanding about the fact that technology is just a means to an end. And all too often, the conventional government decision making process is not designed to embrace citizen input. Thus, simply creating an opportunity for input – even using the coolest new social media technology – likely won’t lead to a significant or sustainable increase in citizen engagement on its own. What’s needed is a more open and accepting policy making process that welcomes and encourages public participation. Only then can technology take the stage.
How can this be done? It’s doesn’t have to be that hard. To start, governments need to make sure citizens can easily find information about upcoming policy issues and decisions. While the web has certainly made it easier for people to learn about what’s happening in their community, it can still be a daunting process. Creating special web portals that allow people to drill down by issue areas and geography is one way that governments can help link concerned citizens to opportunities for participation.
Once people have found something they care about, they need to be given a clear roadmap of the decision making process – its schedule, the decision makers involved, and the opportunities for input. When people understand the policy process, they are more likely to participate. People also want updates during the policy process. Electronic alerts via email, SMS or social networks can make sure that citizens get updates on what’s happening, and what’s next.
Another issue that is very important, but often overlooked, is that people need to see other people’s input. This gives the process credibility, and allows citizens to quickly get a sense of what others are saying – helping to inform and evolve everyone’s ideas about a particular issue. Thus, comment forms that submit into black boxes aren’t very useful. Threaded discussions and forums are much more helpful (especially those that allow users to agree/disagree, and administrators to easily aggregate). When government officials and decision makers participate in these forums themselves, it’s all the better.
Similar to the point above, people need to see what the ultimate result of the participation has been. This can be as simple as a summary of the collected public input, and an overview of which points were or weren’t incorporated into the policy, and why. Transparency is the key here. People need to see that they have been heard and acknowledged, even if there viewpoint didn’t win out.
If a city or government agency can adopt these criteria for their decision making process, then they will be good candidate for using technology to increase participation beyond what can normally be achieved using conventional participation strategies. Otherwise, it’s more likely that citizens will ignore its online outreach efforts – no matter how cool they seem.