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When Citizens Bypass Government

The growth of citizen-powered engagement platforms is a challenge for local governments, but it's a phenomenon they should embrace.

Local governments are facing new realities. Citizens' trust in government has declined, and financial constraints do not allow local governments to deliver all of the services their communities would like. In response, citizens are changing as well. Increasingly, local residents and organizations are seizing opportunities to engage with their communities in their own ways by creating platforms that bypass government.

These platforms are powered by inexpensive technology and driven by a desire for community improvement that is bottom-up. While some local governments are embracing this development, others are reacting defensively, at least initially. As this phenomenon grows, more and more local governments will be faced with the challenge of deciding what their stances should be toward these citizen-engagement platforms.

In Alexandria, Va., a citizens' group launched ACTion Alexandria, an online platform for residents to engage in challenges, debate solutions, share stories and develop relationships, all on their own and without the help or permission of the city government. Even though ACTion Alexandria is a platform created and owned by citizens, the city government supports it and even partners with it.

Oakland, Calif., initially took a less supportive stance to the citizen-developed Oakland Crimespotting website. Using open city law-enforcement data, Oakland Crimespotting provides residents with the most up-to-date information on crime in the city on an interactive map. A week after the site was launched, however, the city government cut off its data stream, saying Oakland Crimespotting's frequent data demands were disrupting the city's own crime-tracking website. Eventually, the city changed its mind and restored the data flow.

Citizen platforms are also have much to offer in times of crisis. In Allentown, Pa., in 2011, a devastating natural-gas explosion occurred in the downtown area. Five people died. During and following the disaster, Allentown residents used social-media platforms to provide updates about rescue and recovery, disseminate information about ways to help the affected families, and volunteer.

This is by no means a purely American phenomenon. In Kampala, Uganda, citizens' groups concerned about government corruption and mismanagement of funds are developing a mobile app to allow citizens to track government spending. In Mexico City, a citizens' group created an online platform aimed at mobilizing residents to push for improved sidewalks and bike routes. In Helsinki, Finland, an app developer merged city data on public transport and services and location data from a social-networking platform to create an app that helps blind people navigate the city. The app is now used in a dozen other countries.

So how should local governments engage with these platforms? The days of government as the sole provider of services may be gone, but governments have an important role as the provider of the data that typically powers these bottom-up engines of civic involvement.

Recognizing that they will not be able to control the narrative and that citizens' objectives might not always coincide with those of government, governments nevertheless should engage with these platforms, finding ways to work with them rather than competing with them. After all, citizens have good ideas too, and the reality is that these platforms are here to stay.

A professor at Queensland University of Technology's QUT Business School
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