Public Engagement in a Wired World

A guide to when and where public managers might seek -- or receive -- citizen input.

Former Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, who led the recovery efforts for high-profile disasters from Hurricane Katrina to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, says that in the future, public leaders will have no choice as to whether there will be citizen involvement in recovery efforts. Allen says the spontaneous response of volunteers who self-organize via social networks will happen without public leaders. As a result, they'll simply need to build this into their plans.

But it isn't just disasters where citizens demand to be taken into account. In Spokane, Wash., over 1,000 citizens participated in the Thousand Visions Game, where they engaged in transportation planning and budgeting for their region. "Participants chose funding options, selected projects and balanced the budget to produce their own regional vision," notes Matt Leighninger, executive director of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium.

Leighninger authored a recent report, Using Online Tools to Engage -- and Be Engaged by -- the Public, where he outlines techniques for public managers to engage citizens.

Public officials, because of the nature of their training and their work, tend to think in terms of situations, tactics and tools -- and that's how Leighninger has written his guide. He lays out five common scenarios public managers might seek -- or receive -- citizen input:

  • You want to know the immediate citizen reaction to a particular, well-known issue or decision.
  • You are in the midst of a high-profile situation in which different sets of people do not agree about what should be done.
  • You need new ideas, and more information, from citizens to help make government more effective and/or efficient.
  • You are trying to encourage citizens to take shared ownership of an issue and participate in addressing it.
  • You are trying to educate citizens about a particular issue or decision.
The guide describes the various online tactics and specific tools public managers might use to address each of these scenarios.

For example, when the City of Manor, Texas, began to look for new ideas from its citizens about improving city services, it chose to pursue "idea generation" efforts. Citizens could make a suggestion on how to solve a problem, and other citizens could vote on the best solutions. Those whose ideas were selected could earn "Innobucks" (a local currency) that could be redeemed for small prizes, such as a police department t-shirt. The city did not have to create specialized software to do this. Leighninger points out that the city was able to turn to existing software, such as IdeaScale, Spigit or Google Moderator, to implement its idea generation initiative.

Leighninger cautions that "online and face-to-face engagement complement and reinforce one another well; one does not replace the other." He also warns that these various tactics won't make a difference if no one participates. One successful recruitment strategy is to identify and personally reach out to leaders of different issue networks interested in the topic at hand, and encourage their participation.

He also highlights some of the barriers public managers face in using these various tools, noting that, "Much of the legal framework for citizen participation predates the rise of social media and other online activities." Three key questions, that are largely unresolved, include the issue of attribution by public officials when tweeting or blogging online, uncertainty about how open meeting laws and public participation requirements apply, and the impact of geo-location technologies often embedded in commercial social media software on an individual's right to privacy. In the first case, training of public officials may be the most appropriate action. In the second, there are efforts underway at the federal, state and local levels to update relevant statutes. And in the third case, well, there's no clear answer.

As public officials enter the brave new world of public engagement, this guide will help them navigate this new terrain.

Elizabeth Daigneau is GOVERNING's managing editor.