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INDUSTRY INSIGHT

Driving citizen engagement through mobile technologies

Encouraging citizens to be more involved in their own governance is nothing new. The direct democracy model of ancient Athenian government, in which every (free) citizen voted directly on laws and other legislation, is perhaps the most famous -- and extreme -- example of the principle of citizen engagement.

Given the inefficiencies, it’s not clear that we’d want direct democracy today. Yet the idea that citizen engagement is essential to -- or perhaps the essence of -- a free society is barely a topic for debate. Few would disagree that a “democracy” in which citizens withhold their support and criticism or elected officials ignore the voices of their constituents is a democracy in name only.

That’s why it’s so important for government officials to actively court citizen voices, even though getting citizens involved has historically been no easy task. It’s not that people are not interested in politics; it’s that a significant proportion are either too busy or have too little faith in their agency as citizens (or both) to participate in town halls or other traditional methods of citizen engagement. Today, digital technologies have the power to change all that.

The power of digital citizenship

The vast majority of representatives want to do right by their constituents and are open to investing in tools that put government more in tune with citizen needs. That’s why digital technologies, particularly with today's near-universal access to mobile devices, represent a revolution in government-citizen communication.

First, digital technologies have the potential to shorten the timeframe for citizen feedback on laws and policies, leading to a more efficient implementation of the people’s will. The adage, “people show their approval at the ballot box,” remains true, but governments are realizing that infrequent elections may not be the most efficient way to learn if given policies are what constituents want. Digital approaches allow instant feedback years before the next election cycle.

Mobile technologies make it easy for people to provide near-instant feedback to proposed policy changes or even offer their own suggestions after engaging with a government service. All citizens have to do is use an app or go online from their phone or other web-enabled device. Mobile apps also make it easier for citizens to voice their opinion wherever they are, on their own time, giving citizen outreach initiatives the potential to reach a much higher proportion of residents than traditional approaches.

Digital technologies can also help build trust and faith in government by improving experiences with municipal services. Many citizens who have gotten used to a certain level of service in the private sector, where consumer-centric models have made the customer king, chafe at the difficulty of interacting with many government agencies. A visit to most any local motor vehicles department will clearly illustrate citizens' impatience with long lines. These poor experiences can erode trust in government and lead to disengagement from civic life.

Spurred on by this awareness, agencies are implementing self-service apps. And though these apps are effective for simple tasks, like driver’s license renewals, they aren’t suited for many other functions such as permitting, competence testing or anything complex or sensitive in nature. In these cases, in-person meetings remain necessary and probably will for the foreseeable future.

That doesn’t mean in-person visits to government offices must remain a  miserable experience, however. Web and mobile technologies can improve citizens' in-person encounters with government. Agencies can implement online appointment scheduling, for instance, to decrease the time citizens spend waiting to conduct their business. And they can deploy mobile line-management technologies to help handle citizens' wait-time expectations, lessening the stress of sitting in government waiting rooms and giving people the freedom to wait for service doing whatever they choose.

There is a cost aspect to consider when deciding how to improve citizen experiences. It can be expensive to implement self-service apps, especially if doing so necessitates replacing aging IT. Not every community has the funding for these approaches, and in such cases, it may be more prudent for agencies to focus on reducing the burden of government visits through online appointment and mobile line-management software that integrates into their current operational and IT structure.

Truly smart communities are citizen-centric

As cities and states continue to pursue the dream of smart and connected communities, government officials should take the consumer- or citizen-centric perspective and work on simplifying their constituents' daily lives. By doing so, they can create a more satisfied and more engaged citizenry and, in turn, deliver meaningful quality-of-life improvements.

About the Author

Alex Bäcker is founder and CEO of QLess.

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