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Making Citizens Part of Government

Local governments are leading the way in engaging the public in decision-making. More and more, technology is the key.

Government in the 21st century is undergoing a fundamental transformation: It can no longer afford to go it alone without the active participation of the constituencies to which it provides essential services. The key to gaining that participation is engaging citizens in decision-making and ensuring transparency and accountability.

Cities, towns and counties are at the forefront of these efforts, and they continue to pay off in a big way: According to a Gallup poll published in September, nearly 75 percent of Americans say they trust their local governments, a far higher percentage than those who say they trust their state governments or the federal government.

Technology has the potential to spark an even deeper level of trust in local government. Here are three examples of innovations in this increasingly crucial area:

Palo Alto, Calif., had a vision of becoming a leader in the use of technology to spark and increase citizen involvement. To achieve its goal, the city launched one of the country's most ambitious community open-data sites. Using the cloud-based Junar platform, the city increased public access to high-value, machine-readable datasets generated by various service areas and city departments. Over time, the city plans to make available a greater number and more advanced datasets. Palo Alto already had an informed and engaged community; its open-data site will serve as a foundation to open new channels for communication and participation and strengthen democracy by fostering transparency and greater trust in government.

Hampton, Va. 's I Value Campaign offers residents the opportunity to identify which services they value most and to provide input into the budgeting process. The campaign, according to City Manager Mary Bunting, enables the city to build a "larger body of evidence about what the community is thinking" and to acquire valuable data and information for use by city staff as they begin their budget deliberations.

The city learned that offering residents multiple communication channels such as phone polling, online surveys and community meetings encouraged them to become engaged. More than 1,000 residents participated in the online survey portion of the I Value campaign this year, and many residents also took part in a phone survey or attended community forums.

As a result of the success of the IValue campaign, Bunting recently was honored by the White House as an "Innovation Champion of Change." The award is given to government leaders who make government more transparent, provide new venues for citizens to become involved and foster new methods for the public, private and nonprofit sectors and citizens to work together.

Decatur, Ga. , having convened a roundtable process back in 2000 to formulate goals for the coming decade--85 percent of which were achieved--was already way ahead of the transparency, accountability and citizen-engagement game by the time city staff and elected officials turned their attention to development of the 2010 strategic plan.

Decatur hired PlaceMakers, a planning and design firm that addresses the full range of activities involved in rebuilding community, to manage the new efforts, and the pivotal component was a new web portal that served as the door to the entire project and enabled residents to stay connected to the strategic planning process.

In the end, nearly 2,000 residents were engaged in the process of establishing goals and objectives for the city for the next decade.

These outstanding examples of citizen engagement efforts reinforce what those of us involved in local-government management have always known: that the working capital of innovation is citizen trust, and that trust equals transparency plus engagement plus performance plus accountability. It's a formula that many local governments have yet to fully realize, but one that is crucial for a community to achieve its goals in the face of dwindling resources and increasing fiscal challenges.

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