About Nesta

Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

Power to the people: how cities can use digital technology to engage and empower citizens

You’re sat in city hall one day and you decide it would be a good idea to engage residents in whatever it is you’re working on - next year’s budget, for example, or the redevelopment of a run down shopping mall. How do you go about it?

In the past, you might have held resident meetings and exhibitions where people could view proposed designs or talk to city government employees. You can still do that today, but now there’s digital: apps, websites and social media. So you decide on a digital engagement strategy: you build a website or you run a social media campaign inviting feedback on your proposals. What happens next?

Two scenarios: 1) You get 50 responses, mostly from campaign groups and local political activists; or 2) you receive such a huge number of responses that you don’t know what to do with them. Besides which, you don’t have the power or budget to implement 90 per cent of the suggestions and neither do you have the time to tell people why their proposals will be ignored. The main outcome of your citizen engagement exercise seems to be that you have annoyed the very people you were trying to get buy in from. What went wrong?

Four tips for digital engagement

With all the apps and platforms out there, it’s hard to make sense of what is going on in the world of digital tools for citizen engagement. It seems there are three distinct activities that digital tools enable: delivering council services online - say applying for a parking permit; using citizen generated data to optimise city government processes and engaging citizens in democratic exercises. In Conneced Councils Nesta sets out what future models of online service delivery could look like. Here I want to focus on the ways that engaging citizens with digital technology can help city governments deliver services more efficiently and improve engagement in democratic processes.

  1. Resist the temptation to build an app

I know, it’s tempting. The majority of people who live in your city probably have a smartphone. Think of the thousands of people you could reach directly if you built a bespoke citizen engagement app, you reason. But first, take a look at the download stats for a few city government apps on the Google app store - they’re not pretty. App development is also very expensive.

The city governments around the world that we talk to often feel like pioneers in the citizen engagement field. This may be because, unlike areas like the environment and data sharing, there aren’t many good global networks on citizen engagement in the digital age. But there are many examples of cities that have used digital technologies to engage citizens, both internationally and in the UK. Before you call in the app developers, contact the city governments and civic minded organisations that have already done what you're planning to do, to see if you can cooperate and build on their experiences.

Alongside this, it’s also a good idea to support the development of open source technologies. Examples of this include D-CENT and the tools created by My Society. The idea is to build a shared library of digital tools that city governments can add to when they want to run a new citizen engagement exercise, rather than start from scratch each time by building proprietary software. This is also something that respected global bodies like UNICEF think is worth putting their money behind, with their $9m fund to develop open source civic technologies.

  1. Think about what you want to engage citizens for

Sometimes engagement is statutory: communities have to be shown new plans for their area. Beyond this, there are a number of activities that citizen engagement is useful for. When designing a citizen engagement exercise it may help to think which of the following you are trying to achieve (note: they aren’t mutually exclusive):

  • Better understanding of the facts

If you want to use digital technologies to collect more data about what is happening in your city, you can buy a large number of sensors and install them across the city, to track everything from people movements to how full bins are. A cheaper and possibly more efficient way for cities to do this might involve working with people to collect this data - making use of the smartphones that an increasing number of your residents carry around with them. Prominent examples of this included flood mapping in Jakarta using geolocated tweets and pothole mapping in Boston using a mobile app.

For developed world cities, the thought of outsourcing flood mapping to citizens might fill government employees with horror. But for cities in developing countries, these technologies present an opportunity, potentially, for them to leapfrog their peers - to reach a level of coverage now that would normally require decades of investment in infrastructure to achieve. This is currently a hypothetical situation: cities around the world are only just starting to pilot these ideas and technologies and it will take a number of years before we know how useful they are to city governments.

  • Generating better ideas and options

The examples above involve passive data collection. Moving beyond this to more active contributions, city governments can engage citizens to generate better ideas and options. There are numerous examples of this in urban planning - the use of Minecraft by the UN in Nairobi to collect and visualise ideas for the future development of the community, or the Carticipe platform in France, which residents can use to indicate changes they would like to see in their city on a map.

It’s all very well to create a digital suggestion box, but there is a lot of evidence that deliberation and debate lead to much better ideas. Platforms like BetterReykjavic include a debate function for any idea that is proposed. Based on feedback, the person who submitted the idea can then edit it, before putting it to a public vote - only then, if the proposal gets the required number of votes, is it sent to the city council for debate.

  • Better decision making

As well as enabling better decision making by giving city government employees, better data and better ideas, digital technologies can give the power to make decisions directly to citizens. This is best encapsulated by participatory budgeting - which involves allowing citizens to decide how a percentage of the city budget is spent. Participatory budgeting emerged in Brazil in the 1980s, but digital technologies help city governments reach a much larger audience. ‘Madame Mayor, I have an idea’ is a participatory budgeting process that lets citizens propose and vote on ideas for projects in Paris. Over 20,000 people have registered on the platform and the pilot phase of the project received over 5000 submissions.

  1. Remember that there’s a world beyond the internet

To misuse the words of Alex Turner (of Arctic Monkeys’s fame), city government, you need to stop “Trying to save the youth without putting your shoes on.” Digital government may be the future, but it isn't the present.

As smartphones and apps proliferate, it’s understandable that someone would think that engaging residents online means setting up a website and waiting for people to come and use it. But the most successful examples of digital citizen engagement rely on traditional media to promote the initiative. My Ideal City, an initiative designed to crowdsource ideas for the redevelopment of the city centre in Bogota, used a daily one-hour radio show to promote the project. As a result, 10,000 suggestions were submitted to the platform.

It’s also important to note that all the evidence so far shows that digital technologies are best at reaching new audiences, and so should be used to supplement traditional participatory processes rather than replace them. The main participants in the Estonian city of Tartu’s 2013 online–only participatory budgeting pilot were 30 to 36 year olds. While this was a success in terms of reaching a demographic that doesn’t usually attend community meetings, it shows that traditional methods of community engagement can’t be abandoned.

And let's not forget that even if online tools theoretically could reach a huge audience, in reality, they often function best as a new channel for those that are already adept at engaging with city government. See the research from MySociety for much more on this.

  1. Pick the right question for the right crowd

You’ve worked out what you want from residents, chosen the right tool, then launched your campaign, hopefully doing a good deal of promotion through more traditional channels. Why are you still getting hardly any response? This is probably because you’ve picked the wrong question for the wrong crowd.

“How can I consult all the x million people in my city?” is a question I’ve been asked a number of times when talking to city government officials. My immediate response is often, why would you want to do that?

Think about yourself for a second. Have you ever engaged in a meaningful way, other than voting and filling in forms online, with your local government? For the majority of the people I know, the answer is no. “How can we motivate people to give something back to the city?” is a follow up question I heard someone ask recently at a conference.

It’s worth thinking about the relationship between representative and direct democracy here, and how new digital tools fit into this picture. Nesta’s CEO Geoff Mulgan has discussed this here and this book by John Keane may also be worth adding to your summer reading pile. To paraphrase Keane’s argument a bit, what new digital tools enable are a strengthening of representative democracy, not a return to the days of Athenian direct democracy. Most people, most of the time just want the politicians they elect to do a better job, they aren’t looking to be involved in the day to day business of government.

So when you are trying to crowdsource ideas, think about which segment of the crowd you are trying to engage. If you’re looking to come up with a better alcohol management policy for the city, to take one recent city government crowdsourcing initiative as an example, the general population probably isn’t the best crowd to consult on this, as they lack the expertise to deal with the question. See the above mentioned blog by Geoff Mulgan for more on this. In this case, digital tools might be most useful in helping you access a wider pool of experts.

The crowd sometimes might also mean city government employees or suppliers. The Boston StreetBump example, in which an app was used to map potholes in the city, was largely used by city government employees, not citizens. 

However, there may be times when you want to engage a large number of residents- people know a huge amount about their cities, the problems faced in daily life, and this knowledge, or collective intelligence, can be of huge value to city governments. Here are two things to consider:

  • You need to choose something that people care about. In Jakarta, researchers are able to map flooding via Twitter because this is an issue that costs lives, every year, in the city. Flood mapping via Twitter in London wouldn’t, I suspect, lead to the same outcomes as it just isn’t as important to Londoners as it is to Jakartans. Find out what issues people in your city care most about and engage them on that.

  • Secondly, people need to know that their engagement is going to be valued. Tempting as it is to set up a digital suggestions box, if people feel that their contribution is going to be ignored, they will find it hard to engage. This is where things like participatory budgeting help as people know that there is a chance their idea will be put into practice. But even if you don't have a budget, making clear what will happen to suggestions will prevent misunderstanding and disappointment.

When we talk to city governments and local authorities, they express a number of fears about citizen engagement: Fear of relying on the public for the delivery of critical services, fear of being drowned in feedback and fear of not being inclusive - only engaging with those that are online and motivated. Hopefully, thinking through the issues discussed above may help alleviate some of these fears and make city government more enthusiastic about digital engagement.

What we’re doing

Alongside work on digital technology and democracy and data use in local government, we’re also working with the UNDP to design a digital citizen engagement pilot. The pilot is designed to explore questions around trust, what incentives are needed to motivate citizens to engage, attitudes to data privacy and how citizen data can be integrated into the day to day operations of city government. Please contact [email protected] if you would like to learn more about the pilot or get involved.


Tom Saunders

Tom Saunders

Tom Saunders

Principal Researcher

Tom was a Principal Researcher in the inclusive innovation team.

View profile