Engaging citizens in policymaking — Introduction

Can citizens make government better?

Treating citizen involvement in policymaking like a new innovation can sound counterintuitive. In a democracy, citizens participate in policymaking through elections, and have been doing so ever since the Greeks had the bright idea more than 2,500 years ago. So what has changed to make public servants, academics and policymakers interested in crowdsourcing the political process?

Part of the answer is the influence of new technologies that allow citizens to be brought into the decision making process in new, more interactive ways. But as the cases in this field guide show, technology is only part of the equation. To get the full picture, we need to take a look at the human element too.

In this field guide we will introduce you to some of the most innovative new approaches from governments around the world.

The goal is to give public servants a framework for understanding the potential and limitations in letting citizens help steer a course for government.

The field guide will take approximately two hours to complete, and covers the following learning objectives:

Develop an understanding of the potential benefits of increased citizen participation in policy-making.

Become acquainted with the strengths, and limits, of different digital approaches to citizen engagement.

Learn to identify common pitfalls.

Reykjavik calling

Sometimes, a crisis can be a necessary ingredient in innovation. “Better Reykjavik” is a case in point.

As a direct response to the upheavals of the financial crisis and the subsequent political fallout that saw citizens’ trust in government plummet, a new experiment in e-democracy was born.

Better Reykjavik was created as an online, open-source platform where citizens can propose and debate new policies. The most popular ideas are then submitted for consideration by the city’s elected officials, who have signed several of the policies into law since the platform emerged in 2010.

Similar platforms have sprung up in other countries, including Estonia and Denmark, but few can boast the same popularity as the Icelandic platform. over 70,000 Icelanders have used the platform, more than half of Reykjavik’s population.

Should citizens stay on the sidelines?

Despite the apparent success of Better Reykjavik, the idea of crowdsourcing the political process can still be a source of discomfort for some public servants. And the apprehension is, to a degree, understandable.

Most of the issues that governments deal with have deep and wide-ranging impacts on the lives of their citizens, and can be complex — citizens can’t be expected to have all the prior knowledge necessary to make informed decisions.

These challenges must be taken into account. But some pilot projects also show that citizens are surprisingly capable when it comes to solving even complex issues.

In Poland, a citizen’s assembly has been the driving force behind a new flood mitigation program, and in the Mexican city of San Pedro, the local community has curbed air pollution by committing to carpooling.

“It may seem risky to outsource the solving of difficult issues to citizens. Yet, when properly designed, public problem-solving can produce creative resolutions to formidable challenges,” writes Gabriella Capone, Graduate Fellow at The Governance Lab in an op-ed.

The Governance Lab has collected more than 100 cases like these in their CrowdLaw Database. The first of its kind, the site exists to inspire policymakers by showcasing the real-world cases of citizen engagement.

Taking the good with the bad

In California, one local mayor is offering a different perspective on direct citizen rule. As mayor Christopher Cabaldon says, the loudest and angriest voices are often not representative of the community as a whole, and giving these citizens access to the machine room of government can prove dangerous.

Instead, his constituency in West Sacramento is using AI to sift through comments and measure the mood of citizens to gauge public opinion.

Designing the right system for participation, and being honest with citizens about how their participation fits in the political system as a whole, is key to making civil engagement work.

Theo Bass, a researcher at the innovation foundation Nesta, frames the same dilemma that Cabaldon grappled with in a different light. In his words, digital democracy has attracted many fans, but often the question of why citizens should be included is left unanswered.

“Without clearer articulation of the ‘why’ of engagement there’s a risk we design token engagement exercises that lead people nowhere,” he writes. Participation can be a powerful tool, but it’s not a fix-all for society’s woes.

Making the case

Including citizens in the decision-making process is still an emerging field with many experiments but few guidelines for newcomers, who are willing to experiment but unsure about where to start.

Often the biggest barrier to overcome is within institutions and organisations themselves, as innovators have to convince their colleagues and apprehensive managers, that there can be a real benefit in re-thinking how governments works for citizens.

Strengthening democratic legitimacy and transparency are often highlighted as the two primary benefits of opening government up to citizens. But as several of the cases in this field guide shows, the solutions proposed by citizens can also make government officials aware of needs they did not even know existed. One of the brightest examples of this involves giving thousands of citizens access to Minecraft, a popular computer game, and giving them the tools to reshape the world as they see fit.

Our hope is that this field guide can introduce you to the core concepts underlying citizen participation in policy-making, and help you take your first steps towards implementing these principles in a real-world experiment.

As always, we are very interested in hearing your feedback. If you have any suggestions for future articles or resources we should include in our focus on civil engagement in policy-making, or you have other comments, please do reach out to us via email.

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