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Strengthen Citizen Engagement in Local Government

Local government is simple from a single viewpoint. We, as individuals, all think we have the solution for how our local area needs to be managed and run. From the point of view of the local authority or local representative though, all those individual solutions add up to a cacophony of opinion, hard to sift through, even harder to act upon. Paralysis of local government, therefore, can be quite common without citizen engagement.

Actively Engage People

Building legitimacy for local government requires authorities to take a ‘stakeholder engagement’ model and incorporate all those dissonant voices into the process. At the heart of this process is the need for citizen engagement, something that has often been more of an aspiration for local government rather than a policy. The great advantage is if citizens feel that they have been actively engaged and consulted during a public process they are far more likely to buy-in to the project as a whole.

Take the example of Rio de Janeiro‘s recent ‘smart city’ program. Smart city initiatives are present in most large urban centers now and seek to join together business, government and the citizenry to provide new initiatives around energy use, transport, and mobility as well as improving the overall functioning of the city. Elements typically include smart street lighting (that dims when sensors indicate no-one is on the street), or mobile apps that tell drivers where the nearest parking space is (30% of all city traffic is searching for parking!). In Rio, however, the smart city initiative did not sufficiently engage citizens during the development of the program. This led to accusations of authoritarianism and an encroachment on citizen privacy rules. In other words, done wrong, local government projects can be very damaging to the democratic fabric.

Promote Powerful Stories

Done right citizen engagement can have a powerful impact on local government initiatives like smart cities or infrastructural projects. Pro-active engagement avoids protest groups needing to form and can build consensus rather than conflict at a local level. So what to do? Up until now, focus groups, online surveys, and public meetings formed best practice in citizen engagement for local authorities. Now, however, there are more advanced solutions.

Hamilton, Ontario is a good example of modern best practice in citizen engagement. When planning a $1 billion light rail system for the city the local authority decided to fully consult with the public who would be most affected by the project. They built their public consultation process around a ‘citizen jury’ made up of a representative sample of the community. This jury was then fed in the data from elements like advisory committees, ward meetings, and citizen outreach. They employed a team to canvass all the residents and businesses on the proposed route and managed this process using our own public consultation software. This allowed them to capture real data in the field and feed that back to HQ thereby ensuring a watertight consultation process. The mix of technological tools employed and the total commitment to the consultation process is resulting in a great outcome for the project with all viewpoints being considered.

If you have a stake in local government (let’s face it, who doesn’t?) why not share this article with your local authority or representative and see if we can improve your say in how your area is run.

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