Spotlight: Engaging Citizens Is a Two-Way Street

Cities and towns all over the world stepped up their digital game during the pandemic years – and for good reason. No one wanted to take the risk of doing anything in person, especially something as mundane as paying a tax bill.

I previously wrote for SAP Insights on how smart cities and regions are using data to build online services. As we emerge, haltingly, from the pandemic, here’s another important consideration: after a lengthy isolation, people really do want to engage. Offering a wide array of citizen services is only the first step in building citizen engagement that is both authentic and durable.

The pandemic-driven migration out of cities that many of us were expecting has largely not materialized. For example, new U.S. Census data shows Americans are moving at historically low rates. At the same time, there are signs that midsize cities are enticing work-at-home residents out of classic suburbs into “urbanizing suburbs,” larger municipal locations where they can walk to all the services they need for work and play.

Cities that don’t support this desire for community and engagement run the risk that residents will eventually “vote with their feet” and move to places that do. To retain and attract the people they need to contribute to their labor force and tax base, cities need to deliver better citizen experiences and policies – including reduced traffic, affordable living options, better education through highly connected schools, and resilient infrastructure that can withstand disturbance and still retain its basic function. It’s about striking the balance of attracting people and commerce while not overburdening critical infrastructure, leading to overcrowded streets and schools – no easy feat.

To do this, cities need to better understand citizens’ priorities and pain points to ensure that the decisions they make on behalf of the community are informed by feedback from residents, along with more traditional data sources. Then – and this is the hard part – open up the decision-making process and the factors that were considered so that citizens better understand the choices their city leaders make.

Cities that do so have the chance to continue to grow and thrive. What’s smarter than that?

Shot of a group of coworkers talking together while sitting on some stairs in an office

A chance to be heard, digitally and otherwise

So what does true citizen engagement look like at this critical juncture?

It goes beyond offering convenient digital services; that much is clear. Citizens now expect everything online, such as paying tax bills and parking tickets. Cities ramped up their digital offerings during the pandemic, adding service directories that provide information on a vast number of city resources (including city ordinances and fair housing resources, for example) as well as online voter registration and reporting of potholes.

With those digital services now table stakes, cities are striving to continually reinvent themselves. To get there, they need better ways to gain input from citizens. Case in point: I live in Fairfax County, Virginia. It’s an urbanized county. If citizens had something to say about the way things were being done, it used to be that they would show up and speak to the county supervisor who was available that day. Or they could sign up to speak at a public meeting. And they can still do that.

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But now, there are many different tools available so that cities and counties can bring in contextual experiences from a wider breadth of people with surveys and feedback forms, both online and through other means such as touch-screen kiosks in a city square environment. These methods work well for people who aren’t inclined to get up and speak at a meeting (maybe because they’re reluctant to publicly share an unpopular opinion on a budget item, for example) and just want to provide some input, such as sharing the amount of traffic on their street and the likely ramifications of a new development nearby. The point is for local government leaders to get a broader scope of feedback than was available traditionally, to hear the full range of citizen voices – homeowners, businesses, residents, homeless people – so that they can make better, more informed decisions.

And the exercise is not “one and done.” The hard work of engagement is listening, responding, and listening again. And then keeping residents up-to-date on decisions that have been made – and more importantly, why.

Letting residents see and understand the cost-benefit ratio of individual decisions increases engagement and a sense of ownership of the place where they live and work.

Cities are beginning to use kiosks to capture citizen sentiment, which could be fed into an experience management platform that monitors and analyzes feedback in the same way that companies do for customers and employees. The kiosk approach helps capture input from people who have less convenient access to a smartphone or the Internet.

The city of Cambridge, Massachusetts, for example, is rebuilding a beloved 1928 headhouse and newsstand as a multifunctional kiosk that will be a center for community engagement. According to the Harvard Square Kiosk and Plaza Final Report, the essence of the project was placemaking, through which people collectively shape their public spaces to facilitate social interaction and improve their community’s quality of life. Part of the project’s charter was to involve as many citizens as possible by using pop-up placemaking workshops (along with more traditional means, including surveys) to get a better understanding of how citizens use the historic space. The Harvard Square Kiosk project has meticulously collected citizen feedback data from many different channels, enabling it to have a better picture of the policy needs of the entire community.

The next step for cities will be to overlay citizen feedback with data such as revenue projections, demographic trends, and other data that factor into the reality of limited public funding and balancing different needs. Letting residents see and understand the cost-benefit ratio of individual decisions increases engagement and a sense of ownership of the place where they live and work. That’s the total community experience.

Large group of businesspeople

What true engagement looks like

The city of Hamburg, Germany, places a high value on arts and culture. During the pandemic, the city spotted an opportunity to bolster the hurting artistic community in Hamburg and beyond by building an electronic platform to disburse funds for the city’s cultural players, who were hit hard by the prolonged pause in public performance. An influx of federal funds aimed to help artists, musicians, and performers get back on their feet; the digital platform smoothed the way to ensure that the funds reached the intended group to boost cultural arts in the area. The city recognized the urgency within this special community and responded quickly.

Engaging citizens won’t always be all kumbaya and volunteering. It will often be messy and contentious. Talk to five people and you’re likely to hear five different opinions, especially when it comes to subjects that tap into the socioeconomic disparities that divide citizens. These debates are all the hotter when it comes to things happening in their own backyards, such as school budgets, changes in zoning laws, and maintaining public green spaces.

One of the most pressing yet contentious issues facing cities is the need to create more affordable housing for middle class professionals, such as teachers and firefighters, as well as the economically disadvantaged. All over the world, it’s very common for residents to say they support affordable housing, just not in their own corner of the world (where it could affect their property values). In that case, the residents are certainly engaged, but the situation does not make the choices facing city officials any easier.

Despite COVID-19, the central role that cities play in our lives is not likely to change much

It’s also worth noting that culture plays a major role in how citizens will receive the services that cities provide. For example, the Office of State Revenue, Queensland Treasury, Australia, recently did a pilot project that used machine learning to pinpoint property taxpayers who were the most likely – based on analysis of 187 million records from 97,000 taxpayers – to default on their bills. The concept was to proactively offer help before people got in trouble, which would also raise the amount of tax collected. It’s not a stretch to imagine places in the world where this type of outreach would be viewed as an unwelcome “big brother” type of meddling as opposed to help at the point of need.

For delicate situations like these in which the community is potentially strained, supplying access to a full array of data and showing taxpayers how decisions were made will go far toward bridging the gaps. Or that is the hope, anyway. The work will become about asking residents to both share and critically think about the dilemmas facing society from different perspectives. How do we balance the competing desires of different people while making judicious use of public funds? How does a municipality collect its due in taxes while supporting its citizens?

People often don’t understand all sides of a story. Knowing and critically thinking through all the perspectives from the data could help increase trust in the government.

As told to Lauren Gibbons Paul