Citizen engagement: a pathway for government reform

New technologies are bringing citizens into the halls of government, and redefining how citizens collaborate in the future.

Chat bubbles. Shutterstock image.

I recently participated in a citizen engagement roundtable with leaders from a variety of agencies, moderated by FCW, as part of a broader set of panels on citizen engagement (see FCW's summary here).

Among the many topics addressed by the innovative leaders at the table was a question of definition: What is citizen engagement? How does this concept relate to citizen services, digital transformation, and similar terms used to describe how government is modernizing the ways in which it interacts with citizens?

Citizens in the United States and worldwide have grown accustomed to engaging with private companies in an interactive and personalized manner -- they increasingly expect the same of their engagement with government agencies. Citizens are looking to work with government on how to approach problems, develop policies and programs and receive services, create collaborative online and in-person relationships, and employ new modes of direct interaction -- whether via social media, chat rooms or tech-inspired meet-ups.

Implemented effectively, digital technologies can provide channels that bring citizens and governments closer together to “co-create” programs. Such opportunities leverage citizen service improvements like enhanced service delivery and better customer experience based on citizen-centric design -- approaches that enable self-service, real-time assistance, and personalized transactions.

Building on this digital foundation, new cognitive technologies can bring citizens into virtual rooms in which laws and regulations are drafted, allowing government to benefit from the wisdom of the crowd and to “narrowcast” with key experts in developing regulatory content. This can change the policy game from one in which government posts documents drafted behind closed doors and receives comments that are reviewed one-by-one, to one in which the affected public and private sector parties create transparent and collaborative content. That, in turn, can raise the bar for impact from programs such as E-Rulemaking (, and other programs identified throughout the roundtable’s insightful discussion.

Further, these relationships can redefine the manner in which citizens engage with each other and with government in designing services. For example, local communities can “co-produce” services such as street repair or neighborhood watches collectively, rather than waiting for public services where growing budget constraints can limit access by large numbers of citizens in a reasonable time frame.

Emerging technologies such as blockchain enable citizens to develop new and secure pathways of exchanging data, both directly and with governments. And groups of developers can use open source platforms to design public services, just as they increasingly do in designing commercial applications.

Even as citizens and governments interact in new ways, the tenets of effective government continue to guide how agencies can succeed. Citizens want transparency, security and speed -- expectations that challenge agencies to identify not just new technologies, but new processes and ways of working. Agencies continue to grow formal processes for innovation, establishing chief innovation, chief technology, and chief digital offices; one challenge will be how to scale innovation from these lead offices to reach across the enterprise, and how to be open and agile with respect to incorporating new ideas while still protecting citizen data.

Government organizations cannot deliver on their missions without engaging citizens. Agencies must consider how to institutionalize citizen interaction, identifying barriers to remove and opportunities to draw on. As the 21st century marches on, public-private sector leaders no doubt will continue to evolve in leveraging technology to improve how citizens live, work and learn -- together, and with their government.

Center Innovation Fellow Darcie Piechowski contributed to this post

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