Government’s responsibility in building civic engagement
- By Darcie Piechowski
- Sep 08, 2016
Government organizations improve the lives of citizens every day. Yet the betterment of society is the responsibility of everyone -- public sector employees who work for the government as well as the citizens who interact with it. Although we should all consider it part of our civic duty to contribute toward the common good, many people do not connect with the governing process in a meaningful way. Perhaps government can do more to engage citizens and drive civic awareness.
Fortunately, there are a number of ways -- already tested at multiple levels of government -- that public-sector organizations can encourage citizen engagement and contribute to improved services for all. Examples summarized below provide excellent models.
Identifying issues that matter
Defining the problem is just as important as developing a solution. It is easy to jump straight to solutions without properly understanding the problem and, more significantly, understanding which problems matter most. This is where citizen input, particularly via crowdsourcing, or contributions from large groups of people, can be effective. Examples of issue identification include:
- SeeClickFix – A mobile application that helps citizens report non-emergency issues, such as potholes, tall grass or graffiti, in their cities. Over 2.1 million issues have been fixed as a result.
- We the People – A website that allows users to create and/or sign petitions calling on the White House to take action on particular issues. If a petition collects 100,000 signatures in 30 days, it is sent to White House for consideration. Since its inception five years ago, millions of Americans have contributed to the site.
- Hack the Pentagon – A hackathon run by the Department of Defense to identify potential vulnerabilities on its websites. The 1,410 participants who registered for the hackathon identified 138 unique, legitimate vulnerabilities.
Developing solutions to complex issues
Many civic issues benefit from a community’s collective intelligence. Experts both in and out of government can work together to solve complex problems through a variety of methods such as hackathons, contests and open data, without physical or geographical limitations. Examples include:
- NYC BigApps – A competition that asked participants to make New York City a better place for all its residents by creating solutions that address affordable housing, waste, energy and public benefits.
- Challenge.gov – A central portal for federal competitions that allows agencies to launch challenges and citizens to submit solutions. There have been more than 640 competitions, 250,000 participants and over $220 million in prizes awarded.
- Code for America – A nonprofit that partners with local governments by bringing together developers and local citizen technologists to help communities redesign public services.
Delivering improved services
Citizens can act as a natural extension of a government organization, enhancing services delivery by contributing their own experiences or expertise. A few examples of citizens enhancing government services include:
- MyTSA – An interactive mobile and web application that allows users to post security line wait times. The shared information keeps other travelers and transportation stakeholders informed and may also improve the flow of traffic through security lines. This app also gives users one place to look for key travel information, such as airport status and a list of prohibited items.
- NOAA’s mPING – A mobile application that allows users to submit a weather observation to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Severe Storms Laboratory database. NOAA’s National Weather Service uses the information to provide better forecasts and develop improved radar and forecasting technologies.
- IRS’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance – A program that recruits accounting students and trains them to help low-income citizens prepare their tax returns at no charge. During the 2015 tax season, over 90,000 volunteers helped to prepare 3.7 million tax returns.
There are hundreds of examples of government organizations working with citizens to improve outcomes. However, creating these programs is only the first step. Organizations must also ensure they get the best results, for instance, by targeting the right audience.
The key is for government to move from crowdsourcing widely to crowdsourcing wisely, as the Governance Lab Director Beth Noveck recently said. That means that once organizations identify target contributors, they must determine how best to reach and engage that particular group. It also means taking action on crowdsourced contributions is just as important as the steps leading up to it.
While citizens explore ways to more actively contribute to the common good, government must create the environment, means and awareness to make that possible.
Darcie Piechowski is a social media and innovation fellow with the IBM Center for the Business of Government.