3 Steps Governments Can Take to Engage Citizens

Citizens, with their rapidly changing expectations, can play a role in making government what they want and need it to be.

by / September 18, 2014
Citizens already are engaging themselves in government via hackathons, like the Launch Hackathon 2014 held in San Francisco Design Concourse Center, shown here. Flickr/Launch Media

Expectations of citizens are changing rapidly. They want what they want -- be it information, products or services -- and they want it now. But how does government re-imagine itself to respond to these demands? Officials attending the 2014 California Leadership Forum held in Sacramento, Calif., on Sept. 18 had a few ideas. 

As we live in this amazon.com culture, we have to start reframing the way we do business inside of government," said Kiran Jain, deputy city attorney for Oakland, Calif., who was part of a panel on how governments should evolve to serve an increasingly digital society.

Citizens can play a role in reshaping government to meet their expectations, they said. Here are three ways governments can start engaging constituents in the transforming process. 

1. Ask for help

"The first way to engage people is to ask for it," said panelist Greg Weber, director of the Office of the CTO at communications and collaboration systems provider Avaya. "There are a lot of studies out there -- [citizens] want to help and they want the recognition," he said. "Money’s great, but they want recognition and they want to go in and start solving problems."

2. Tackle small problems first

Though the problem itself may be small, that doesn't necessarily mean the impact will be small, Weber said. "There are some problems you can solve on the surface and get big gains from," he said. "It starts changing platforms tremendously when you start changing small problems."

3. Let citizens profit 

Many people have created apps based on government data, so why not allow them to make some money off the services they develop? Many apps are free, and it's the enhancements that cost extra. But if you let these citizens profit a bit, "I think you’ll get a lot of bang for your buck," Weber said. "People inevitably start raising the bar, so allow them a framework to do that and solve problems at the same time."

The bottom line for improving engagement: I think you start by just starting, Jain said.

As for keeping up with citizens' changing expectations, how governments design and build their systems is key, Weber said.

With the new types of architectures are out there -- shared services, flexible platforms -- governments should design their systems knowing they're going to replace different parts at different times. "You don’t have to replace all of it at one time," Weber said. "Build systems very modular and go in with a mindset that you’ll be switching things out."

Jain added that governments have these clunky systems due to layers upon layers of laws that have been passed over decades. "We need to look at these and say why," she said. "We need to promote social equity policies, and ask ourselves how can we streamline that process so we can be more agile and lean, and more responsive to this next generation of citizens."

Jessica Mulholland Former Web Editor/Photographer

Jessica Mulholland served as the Web editor of Government Technology magazine from October 2012 through September 2017. She worked for the Government Technology editorial team for nearly 10 years.