The Gallery: How to Boost Civic Engagement Without Leaving City Hall

state house gallery

Creating sustainability in our cities is the movement of the 21st century. But it’s not all about green infrastructure and lessening environmental impact — civic engagement is also key to building communities that are livable and lasting. The best part is city leaders can now do this without even leaving city hall.

If our cities are to be truly sustainable, civic engagement has to be the first priority — with cloud and mobile technologies at the forefront. Some studies have shown states with higher levels of civic engagement experience less unemployment overall. In fact, states with high levels of activities — volunteering, attending public meetings, working with neighbors to address community problems, and voting — helped predict how they weathered the recession in 2006.

Harness The Spread of Mobile Tech

Thanks to mobile technologies, civic engagement is becoming easier to partake in without leaving the comfort of our homes. Cloud technologies allow city leaders to remove a lot of the legwork and maintenance involved in making civic engagement accessible and convenient for all. In a world where more than half of Americans — 56 percent — own smartphones, the barriers between government leaders and citizens are shrinking. By 2015, smartphone and tablet use is predicted to surpass PC use, furthering the opportunity for open government, sustainability, and digital transparency.

City leaders need to meet citizens where they already are — and that’s on the mobile Web. A recent Pew Internet poll found that when using their smartphones, 64 percent of Americans read the news, 68 percent access a social networking site, and 31 percent visit a local, state, or federal government website.

Recognize Traditional Barriers

Today, citizens with a concern or idea they wish to bring to city leaders face plenty of barriers. Legislators often ask them to send an email, leave a voicemail, or find time to attend a public meeting. These roadblocks disengage citizens, foster apathy, hinder sustainability, and remove transparency in the local political process. If cities want to be a part of the sustainability revolution, they need to create virtual opportunities for public conversations and brainstorming.

Mobile technology can help government go beyond automated emails and show citizens they’re listening in real-time. Online discussions, forums, and surveys can be used to pool public opinion and create a sounding board for new ideas. The data can then be crunched and accessed by city decision-makers during public hearings and other important meetings.

Take A Mobile-First Approach In Cities

This mobile-first approach is already working in a slew of cities, including Austin, TX and Blacksburg, VA. Government leaders there have launched Speak Up, Austin! and Speak Up, Blacksburg!, online portals that ask citizens how they can improve the city.

Austin’s online portal has seen significant engagement since its implementation. More than 2,000 registered users have submitted 800 ideas, cast 5,280 votes and added more than 1,055 comments to the site. The community used the online portal as the primary outlet for solving the city’s 2012-2013 budget crisis, and Austin now has more than 50 civic ideas in action (with 23 fully implemented).

In Blacksburg, citizens were already very engaged in the community and expected to have their voices heard on civic issues. The town government needed to find a way to scale their resources to meet the demand on staff members’ time. They turned to the creation of an online portal to provide a space where decision-makers could reach out to even more members of the community without overextending staff and other resources. The efforts paid off — when the town launched a survey about downtown parking as their first engagement project, they received more than 1,000 responses.

By using online and mobile technologies, city governments can go beyond automated emails and immediately engage with citizens, monitor feedback, and pool data. The mobile revolution is already at our fingertips, and it’s easier than ever to give citizens these platforms for getting their voices heard.

If city leaders are truly dedicated to sustainability and transparency, they need to focus on the ways the digital revolution can boost civic engagement. Cities are nothing without the voice of the people — it’s time city governments make a point to listen.

Tom Spengler is the CEO and co-founder of Granicus, an award-winning cloud applications provider for government transparency, efficiency, and citizen participation.

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