• Opinion
  • December 4, 2018
  • 7 minutes
  • 1

Civic networks: a new paradigm for online citizen engagement

Opinion: Bots and astroturfing have become a persistent problem

civic networks

This piece was written by Mary Leong, Communications Manager at PlaceSpeak. For more like this, see our digital government newsfeed.


As governments increasingly recognise the limitations of engaging with the public in-person (e.g. town hall meetings, public hearings), online methods of gathering feedback have become ubiquitous. However, this shift to online has brought its own set of challenges.

Bots and astroturfing (the practice of creating the false impression of widespread grassroots support for a policy) have become a persistent problem, particularly in high-stakes consultations such as the FCC’s Net Neutrality consultation, where millions of comments were submitted under false or stolen identities, including those of dead people.

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The anonymous or pseudonymous nature of social media has allowed trolls and online harassment to proliferate and act with impunity. Furthermore, the revelations around Cambridge Analytica and Facebook have raised concern and public awareness about the privacy and security of their personal data.

A new paradigm is required for engaging with the public online — inclusive civic networks that protect individual privacy, encourage ongoing engagement and empower the public as partners in the decisions that impact them and the places where they live, work and play.

What are civic networks?

Civic networks are online networks that are tied to place-based communities, such as streets, neighbourhoods, schools, stratas/homeowner associations and more.

Just as social networks provide a single stop to interact, follow and share with family, friends and others in a variety of social contexts, civic networks provide a hub for people to engage with all types of civic-related activities in their community — from getting to know their neighbours to providing feedback on proposed initiatives to grassroots organising on local issues.

Since 2011, PlaceSpeak has been pioneering the concept of a civic network which places the individual at the heart of the online engagement process. By offering a single point of contact for community members to engage with decision-makers, civic networks act as a third-party intermediary to break down silos between:

  • Multiple levels of government (local, state, federal)
  • Government departments and agencies (finance, health, transport, etc.)
  • Other public and private sector organisations which need to engage with the public

How It Works: Digital ID Authentication

In 2016, the Digital ID and Authentication Council of Canada (DIACC) released a proof of concept on the importance of online proof of residency. Residency is used by organisations such as governments or businesses “to ensure products and services are delivered to eligible individuals who live in a specific province, area or community, and to help reduce risk.” In order to gather relevant information and sustain ongoing connections, the first step is to be able to verify that users are members of the community.

PlaceSpeak uniquely authenticates the digital ID (i.e. user account) of online participants to their physical location, such as their residential address. Once an individual’s location has been confirmed, they can connect with any entity which chooses to use the platform to engage with the community.

For example, residents along a proposed transit route can be notified of the opportunity to provide feedback. Parents and families residing within a specific school district can be consulted about potential changes to their child’s school catchment or attendance area. They may participate in a community dialogue with others in their residents’ association, or have their say on a state-wide consultation. Instead of having to visit multiple websites or subscribe to several mailing lists, community members can stay updated and participate directly.

At the same time, privacy is an ever-growing concern. The platform was architected with Privacy by Design principles in mind, which means that privacy is the default for users. The personal information of users is disaggregated from the feedback that they provide. Decision-makers can be confident that they are hearing from real and relevant individuals, while mitigating risk by never having access to the personal information of participants.

Building a robust civic network

Since 2017, the Cowichan Valley Regional District in the Canadian province of British Columbia and its member municipalities have pioneered the development of an active civic network in the region. They have used PlaceSpeak to engage residents on issues ranging from housing affordability to dog parks to local bylaws. With each new consultation, they are able to immediately notify an ever-growing base of thousands of engaged citizens.

Residents only have to sign up once to be notified of new opportunities to participate from both the CVRD and their municipality, on an ongoing basis. They are also informed of province-wide or nation-wide consultation. Once they have registered, the time and resources required to stay engaged is minimal. When other organisations use PlaceSpeak (e.g. school districts, neighbourhood associations, First Nations), residents will also be directly notified of opportunities to engage with, and provide feedback to, these organisations.

Ultimately, reducing the barriers required for citizens to stay engaged and putting them at the heart of the process is crucial to building stronger communities and making civic engagement habit-forming. — Mary Leong

(Picture credit: Unsplash)

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