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How citizen engagement can improve our democracies

7 November 2018

News and media


The potential of technology to transform how government engages with its citizens is huge but is still largely unexplored. Professor Beth Noveck believes that using technology to drive genuine engagement with citizens can improve policy and could help reverse a decline in trust affecting democratic governments across the world.

“The only way we can solve large-scale problems is with ‘all hands on deck’. Our public institutions therefore must be designed not only to represent citizens through intermittent political engagement, but continuously through systematic conversation and tapping of talents and skills,” Professor Noveck said.

Professor Noveck was part of the Obama Administration and currently directs the US-based Governance Lab (GovLab) and its MacArthur Research Network on Opening Governance. She visited Australia and New Zealand as part of ANZSOG’s Thought Leadership program.

“Open data” – where government data is made publicly available is already being used to improve services and make government more efficient, as well as more transparent. But Professor Noveck believes we need to go beyond this and provide more avenues for people to influence and engage with government, and solve problems both effectively and legitimately. She sees this as vital for improving trust in government and democracy.

“We have the political uncertainties being created by demagogues who ask us to place their faith in them, not in democratic institutions,” she said. “But there is some note of truth in the debate that these demagogues issues, that we can do things better. Regardless of these partisan battles around values, we can agree government doesn’t work as well as it ought to. Decline in trust in government is a global phenomenon, except for India and New Zealand.”

Tapping our collective intelligence

Professor Noveck’s solution is to tap into the expertise of ordinary citizens and says that the idea of ‘citizens vs experts’ was a false dichotomy that overlooked the expertise of citizens. She said that governments needed to start tapping into the collective intelligence of their citizens.

“Imagine if going forward we could connect smart people to institutions when they are needed. Everyone knows something about something and we don’t have the answers by ourselves. Can we crowdsource our way to understanding how we do things differently?” she said.

“Private companies are very good at targeting customers, but we don’t spend anything on finding out how we can connect people with the skills and willingness to serve, with the opportunities to do so.” Despite the promise of the idea there are many practical issues that need to be worked out before citizens can be meaningfully engaged in policy-making.

Ms Noveck cited her own experience as part of President Obama’s transition team in 2008, when they asked the public to tell them what they wanted the president to do as part of the transition. “We had 84,000 submissions but we didn’t do anything with them. We didn’t have the time or resources to read them all. We saw it too much as a communications and PR exercise and hadn’t thought through what we would do with the information, so it died.”

She said that the City of Madrid had set up a system of citizen input into government, with over 400,000 people signed up, and the chance to put proposals forward for government to consider. While the program had high interest, the number one concern of Madrid residents was the thorny issue of people cleaning up after their dogs. In addition, the sheer number of proposals being put forward means that none are getting the level of support required to go to government.

“The problem is that 400,000 people have signed up on the basis they can make a difference, but nothing is happening,” Professor Noveck said. “These kinds of open exercises are difficult to do because of the two problems: either no one shows up or everyone shows up.”

“Tinder for government is not so easy. We need to sit down and think about the problem before we start. It is not just crowdsourcing but smarter crowdsourcing; start by thinking about who we want to hear from and then asking them to find people. So we are crowdsourcing a group that can define concrete ideas to solve this particular problem.”

Translating citizen input into policy

However even if a government can manage to set up a flow of quality information, this does not necessarily translate into action.

“We have had deliberative polling or citizen juries, which enable us to get a good idea of public opinion. They are beautiful exercises in civics, in getting people together listening to their neighbours, and how they can change minds after talking to people with different experiences. The problem is that they are disconnected from government and how government has traditionally worked,” she said.

She said that experiments in ‘participatory budgeting’ – currently being tried on a small scale in South Australia – where communities got to determine budget priorities were one way of incorporating citizens views into concrete policy. “We need to think of how this is becoming institutionalised, in formal law and policy-making processes,” she said.

“Costa Rica put a lot of effort into “CR Revolution” – which aimed to generate ideas from citizens. The program failed, not because they didn’t get great ideas, but because they did not get buy-in from senior people in ministries in advance. Also, the ideas were great but not related to what they were looking for, which made them harder to implement.

“A better model comes from Mexico, where public sector leaders and citizens came together in advance to define problems. They were able to develop workable solutions within weeks, because the entire process was thought through ahead of time.” She said that citizen engagement needed to occur right through the policy cycle – from evaluating problems, through to developing alternative solutions, making policy decisions, implementation and assessment.

Despite her enthusiasm for citizen engagement, she said that advocates needed to take an empirical approach and ask hard questions about whether engagement was working. “What are the outcomes and outputs from using collective intelligence? Does it change the problems we try to solve or lead to better quality policy? We need to examine the idea that all engagement is good and think of our work as experiments to determine what works and what doesn’t.”

Professor Noveck said the long-term goal of citizen engagement was to create more opportunities for people to participate in government in different ways and to do it as individuals not simply as members of interest groups.

“It is individuals who have good ideas and creative ideas, that can help us change how we do policy and service delivery. We need to convince people that engaging with others is something we can do and something we must do to invigorate our democracy.”