Empowering citizens means that they not only have a voice, but they're regarded as a key stakeholder helping shape a project. For citizens to be empowered, they also have to be engaged, and that may require a different mindset within city hall.
The business-as-usual approaches that cities have used for well over a 100 years to involve citizens aren't typically effective today, if they ever really were. Unless there's a hot-button issue, citizen participation in public meetings tends to be weak. And cities get little out of them, too. Public meetings tend be held near the end of the process, so forums on any controversial issue tend to be venting sessions where citizens yell at staff and elected leaders.
When you ask, the public is typically quite clear about why it doesn't participate in government more. Cary, North Carolina surveys its residents every other year about various topics and the so-called barriers to citizen involvement rarely change. Nearly half of residents say they simply don't have time to participate. It's not that they feel it's a waste of time – the survey shows most people believe they can make a difference in their communities – they just don't have the time to participate, don't know about the opportunities, or the meetings are at inconvenient times.
Cary is hardly unique, and if you try to put yourself in your citizens' shoes, the problem becomes obvious. Most city meetings tend to be scheduled during the middle of the day or in the evening on a weeknight. How many people can afford to take off work to go to a committee meeting? Or if you spend all day working at a job, rush home to make dinner for the family and help the kids with their homework, would you have the energy to go to a council meeting at night and still be refreshed for work the next day?
Viewed from the perspective of citizens, it's pretty easy to see why the traditional public participation model doesn't work. And smart cities need to understand that if it doesn't work for their citizens, it won't work for them either.
The authors of "The Responsive City: Engaging Communities Through Data-Smart Governance" suggest many city staffers aren't particularly fond of public meetings either. For one, they can be painful. Either they are boring affairs attended by the same small group of people who complain about the same things, or they're very intense meetings where they are the focus of an angry mob. Says co-author Stephen Goldsmith, when you tell your staff to communicate more, they tend to think about doing more of the same thing they're already doing. But why would anyone want to conduct more of those dreaded meetings when there are so many more effective ways today to connect with ctizens?
Changing the engagement mindset
Today, building an engaged community requires communicating with citizens on their own terms.
- Provide ample opportunities for citizens to get involved in a time and manner that works for them.
- Give updates early and often so that people can be involved in the earliest stages, allowing them to help shape projects.
- Use multiple communications tools so citizens have a choice in how they want to interact with their city, for example, social media, text messages, online forums.
- Continue the conversation when the project is complete; share results and benefits so they can see their involvement was worthwhile.
Doing these things may require getting your city staff to think of citizen communication in a new way. The key is not just more communication; it's more effective communication which occurs when you put citizens' needs and preferences first. You'll see examples in the sections ahead.