Citizen engagement

The nanny state’s days are numbered. For over a century, government’s top-down approach has created a culture of control and programmed public expectations that the state is responsible for solving society’s problems, notes Don Lenihan, CEO of Ottawa-based research group Crossing Boundaries and author of a seminal book, Progressive Governance for Canadians: What You Need to Know.

There are many complex social problems today that can’t be solved by issuing edicts from office towers in Ottawa. Obesity, racism, economic sustainability: these are issues that need to be tackled communally by diverse players at all levels to change attitudes and behaviour, argues Lenihan. A core requirement is an engaged public that is part of the solution instead of the problem. “To tackle obesity, governments can build bicycle paths, but they can’t make you get on a bicycle,” says Lenihan.

Nor are the nanny’s charges pleased with the current state of affairs. Today’s public is vastly more informed and their spheres of concern are expanding, says Jill Bradford-Green, coordinator for the Office of Public Involvement at the City of Edmonton. “In my 20 years, I’ve seen the scope of their ‘vocalness’ broaden – people now look at environmental issues at national and global levels,” she says. “Years ago, people would never have thought about that.”

People want in. How can government open the door in an orderly fashion? There is a range of policy, technology and governance issues to consider to usher in a new brand of post-modern government.

Engaging policies

Lenihan looks at citizen engagement on three levels. At the lowest level, consultation to solicit the public’s views is used extensively – so much so that the public has grown cynical about what they often perceive as exercises in futility. “People say the government isn’t listening, but is just going through a process about things it’s going to do anyway,” he says. “Many feel they’ve been consulted to death, to no real constructive end.”

Meaningful engagement kicks in at higher levels of interaction. On level two, governments go beyond consultation to include the public in debate and decision-making. “This is a big step beyond consultation, and we don’t do much of that,” he says, noting that the Citizens’ Assembly of British Columbia convened in 2004 to study electoral reform was a ground-breaking initiative.

A non-partisan citizens’ group was needed to make an objective, informed decision, he says. “It turns out citizens can do this. They said to politicians, let’s have a forum to decide this issue because we don’t have the political baggage you guys do.”

At its highest level, engagement means including citizens in planning, and acting on a decision. There are many areas where government can do only part of the job and really needs citizen involvement, asserts Lenihan. An example would be community policing to make streets safer, where people organize themselves to plan and man neighbourhood watches. “This is where the community not only discusses the problem, but goes the next step to take responsibility for achieving the goal,” he says.

These richer forms of engagement can be useful in many areas, adds Lenihan. “A key question is where do we need and want it,” he says, pointing out there are areas where it may be inappropriate. Military attacks and pandemic outbreaks, for example, demand life-saving action, not debate. “I’m not saying there should be public process for every decision; that would be a disaster. The trick is to figure out where engagement will lead to better governance.”

More citizen engagement doesn’t necessarily involve technology, but it will play a big role in its growth, he says.

The infrastructure for communications and transport was not good when our political system was designed over a century ago, notes David Brown, senior associate at the Ottawa-based Public Policy Forum. “Things have changed – we’ve eliminated time and distance with technology, and the population has far more information available,” he says. “But whether our creaky old institutions are keeping up with that is a good question.”

Politicians have been slow on the uptake because opening political processes challenges traditional roles and assumptions, asserts Brown. At higher levels, citizen engagement edges closer to direct democracy. “It implies defining issues that can be decided essentially by online referendum,” he says. “We are probably headed that way in the long term, but existing institutions have to make room for this and decide the ground rules.”

But he adds that direct democracy is limited, as it only works on binary, yes/no issues and not complex ones requiring trade-offs. “In budgetary discussions, what if you get 15 yes’s but can only afford 10? How do you make a decision?” he asks. “That’s where elected politicians earn their keep by making those calls.”

Opening up areas of governance to the public means setting a host of policy issues around fair representation and process, says Lenihan. How to decide which citizens should be invited to a forum to debate, say, the environmental impact of a new development? How to decide what information they should be provided with as a starting point to make it an informed debate? Which experts should be brought in to provide objective testimony?

Even trickier is how to evaluate debate. How should people’s opinions be weighted? If a citizen comes to a forum 100 times, are their views 100 times more important than another who only attends once? How to decide if a view that’s expressed is a rant, and is this opinion less important because it’s a rant?

Technology exists to facilitate citizen engagement via online forums, surveys, e-voting and so on, but whatever is used will need to be grounded in policy, says Brown. “A key issue is legitimacy: Is the process structured in a way that the voices that come out of it can be accepted as representative of public opinion?”

Another is universality: not all citizens have Web access today, although this will likely be a non-issue in the future, which means the foundations need to be planned today.

Many so-called technology issues in this area are in fact policy and process issues, says Lenihan, such as people skewing results by completing multiple online surveys, dominating online forums or creating untruthful posts. These issues need to be settled first, and then the proper technology mechanisms needed to enforce them can be built.

Designing the machinery of citizenry

The bottom-up trend in government is most pronounced in service delivery, where technology has allowed government departments and agencies to download huge amounts of citizen activity, says Brown. “Self-service is a big part of citizen-centred service: people fill out their forms online and are responsible for accuracy.” But these aren’t politically controversial areas, he adds.

Enterprise identity management mechanisms are a hot topic in government IT circles, as these will be needed to enable more political involvement online, says Karl Cunningham, head of e-government at the Ministry of Ontario.

“The question of whether we should be allowing more access to government decision-making has been resolved: the answer is yes, the writing’s on the wall,” he says. “But there are policy issues on how we go about doing this tactically.”

A top-down governance model will likely be needed to allow more bottom-up political involvement, he says. “The issue is, can we put in a governance model across the nation that can hit all three levels of government?”

There are many policy questions around identity management: how to identify and authenticate citizens online while also protecting their privacy, he says. And there are practical considerations. “In Ontario, the technology is available to authenticate citizens with PKI, but it would be expensive to do that for 12 million people.”

The public sector is working through these issues at all levels, individually and collectively, notes Cunningham. An inter-jurisdictional task force with representation from all levels of government, the business community and other stakeholders has been formed to develop a common approach.

“This goes to the heart of service delivery as well; identity management would allow people to sign on once to access services at all three levels of government. That’s informing how one would look at extending it into government decision-making.”

In the United States, governments are proceeding cautiously in this space, suggests Paul Henry, a vice-president at Secure Computing Inc., a San Jose, Calif.-based security provider.

“There’s such a rift between Democrats and Republicans today. Online mechanisms to increase citizen involvement are perceived as dangerous in this politically polarized environment.”

Henry says there are many concerns around the risk of people manipulating online technology for their political purposes.

Identity management is important but difficult to enforce in such a large population, he adds. “You can’t hand a token to every citizen. There are other methods of tracing back to an IP address, but a good hacker can spoof that, or run a botnet to cast votes.”

There are policy risks as well, says Henry. Even moderated online groups can become biased if the moderator decides to express his political will. “Postings can become one-sided to support the moderator’s own agenda.”

As in Canada, a policy that’s acceptable to all concerned needs to be hammered out in the U.S., he says. There’s a clear separation between policy and technology in these discussions.

“CIOs tend to stick to their technology domain; policy is normally driven down to them. Ironically, even in something like URL filtering, the CIO would not determine the specific categories to filter. That would be dictated by policy. He would simply be responsible for configuring [technology] to adhere to [policy].”

This separation is not so rigid in Canada, says Cunningham. “What I see is a blurring of policy and technology, as these go hand in hand. These problems can’t be solved solely in the policy realm without some understanding of the technology options available to enable them.”

And while the Canadian government is also proceeding cautiously, the political climate is different. “I don’t know that we have the same zeal here as we see in the U.S.,” he says. “Yes, we must be careful, but we have a different political environment and system here, and it will temper some of that.”

From theory to practice in Windsor

Some Canadian municipalities are exploring ways to increase citizen engagement. The City of Windsor is working in several areas to get more input, says Harry Turnbull, executive director of IT.

“We’re starting to get more engagement than in the past with our strategic planning process,” he says. After gathering feedback from a community leaders’ forum and a wider public process for citizens, the results are summarized and brought back to the leaders’ group for validation, he explains.

City Council then considers all this information to determine the priorities for the next four years. “It appears successful in giving Council a clear mandate, its marching orders, for the next term,” says Turnbull, who is also president of the Municipal Information Systems Association (MISA) of Ontario.

This process links to a people-based budget approach, where the City, before it starts the budget process, spends time getting feedback from its citizens on the types of services provided, where they think money should be spent and what the priorities are, he says.

Although there’s a chicken-and-egg relationship between the two, citizens aren’t always clear on the connection. People understand there’s an impact on taxes in budget discussions, so it’s easier to get people to participate and provide their views, says Turnbull. “But with community strategic planning, we must do more targeting because it’s harder to get people to understand what you’re trying to do.”

Multiple channels are needed to solicit their input, he says. “If you just use one, then you’re excluding somebody.” Paper, phone and Web surveys, newsletters in public libraries and town hall meetings are all used to hit as wide an audience as possible. “We need to ensure we’re capturing their true views.”

Turnbull believes digital methods will eventually supersede others in the future. “Web access is getting more widespread, and from a municipal point of view, where resources are tight, if you can have only one way to collect more information and compile the results, it requires fewer resources. Down the road, we are going to have to get to fewer approaches.”

While the face-to-face contact in town hall meetings is invaluable, Turnbull says turnout at these is typically low, unless there’s a really contentious issue. “We get better information by electronic means, and people find it easier to get to it. We’re not seeing as good information coming out of town hall meetings,” he says, adding that summarizing these verbal proceedings is a laborious, manual exercise. “Meetings become more a way to validate electronic feedback.”

Digital methods for citizen engagement will likely catch on sooner at the provincial and federal levels of government, adds Turnbull. “It’s harder for them to do town hall-type meetings due to geography, so they will have to rely more on technology – probably faster than municipalities have to. We do have to be quicker at getting feedback, but I think it’s harder for us to get to doing things only one way. It’s a catch-22.”

At present, it’s difficult to determine if citizen engagement is working effectively. “It’s always hard to tell how good a job you’re doing until you use a scientific approach. For example, in online surveys, generally any kind of citizen engagement is ad hoc and open because you want to get as much feedback as possible.”

But a scientific approach would focus on the types of demographics that need to be covered to produce statistically accurate results, which means selecting a smaller representative population to complete the survey.

“One approach precludes the other,” says Turnbull. “In order to be scientific, it tends to mean you have a smaller amount of selected feedback. And you need some kind of identity management in place, which throws up red flags for many citizens. But if you want to keep it anonymous, then it’s hard to make it scientific.”

Nevertheless, this hurdle needs to be resolved if citizen engagement is to move from consultation to decision-making. “A vote is no different from a survey: it’s a yes or no question that can easily be put on a Web site to let people vote on an issue. But right now, we have no way of knowing if someone votes once or 200 times, which makes it difficult to use the results as a definitive answer,” he says. “I think all levels of government must have some consensus on how we’re going to know who we’re talking to.”

Wiring instant pressure groups

Young people are growing up on all sorts of whiz-bang technology: instant messaging, social networking and Web 2.0. They will exert a powerful influence as they mature into citizens in the coming years, says Cunningham.

The first generation of e-government was about getting information and services across the Web to the public, he says. “In the next, we’ll see our customers shaping and pulling our Web presence. Many of these expectations are being shaped by the entertainment field. The whole sense that the public is contributing to decisions is being shaped by things like American Idol. People will say, okay, why can’t we do the same thing in government?”

The more dynamic Web 2.0 enables greater online collaboration and allows people to easily organize themselves into communities of interest, says Cunningham. “This will allow people to find each other and create communities around public debate on political decisions. Once they reach critical mass, these can make their positions heard and influence decision-making. Governments are struggling to be more modern and relevant in a post-modern world, so they ignore this trend at their peril.”

Nor will technology stand still while the government tries to figure out how to deal with current trends. Glimmers of the next generation are already taking form. Non-profit organizations like CIGI (Centre for International Governance Innovation) are pushing the boundaries of Web 2.0. In 2005, the Waterloo, Ont.-based research institute launched an initiative called IGLOO (International Governance Leaders and Organizations Online), a hosted platform that supports online networks and communities.

“The notion is you should be able to build any type of network on top of this platform,” says Dan Latendre, CIGI’s CIO. “What IGLOO does is leverage all services provided by our platform to connect all those individuals and organizations within Canada’s international development network.” He says there are about 100,000 registered members and several community networks running on top of the IGLOO platform.

“This is built for the masses: we offer community-building 101,” he says, adding IGLOO is designed on open, hosted, collaborative principles so that members can focus on their domains instead of the technology. “When we talk to academics who’ve been trying to get a research project off the ground for six months and tell them they can start a community in 15 seconds, they’re blown away.”

As with other social networks, personal space is allocated to each member to set up a profile and store documents for sharing. “Social networks like Facebook and MySpace are interesting, but too broad-based,” says Latendre.

“Once you get personal space in one of our networks, you now have a slot in an interested or like-minded network: a special interest group. At the beginning, these communities tend to be horizontal, but they soon start to verticalize around issues.”

Latendre says he’s looking at building in identity management features and other emerging technologies in future phases. “Maybe we’re looking at a Web 3.0 model with more hosting and other new themes people are starting to think about,” he says. “We’re looking at how to truly use social networking in an appropriate way, to use it for good.”

Will technologies such as social networking, which are more popular today with the younger tech-savvy generation, likely be used by government in the next decade or so? “We can’t even imagine what they’ll be using then,” offers Kasia Seydegart, vice-president of Erin Research Inc., based in Erin, Ont.

In 2005, the research firm conducted a survey called “Young Canadians in a Wired World II” for the Media Awareness Network (MNet), analyzing Web attitudes and practices among 6,000 students in grades 4-11. “Some of the things we reported just two years ago have already changed,” says Seydegart. “YouTube, for example, didn’t exist then. This area is moving really fast.”

Rosie Lombardi is a freelance writer based in Toronto. She can be reached at

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