When the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) explored the drivers of trust in public institutions around the world, it found, for example, that only 52% of Finnish citizens trusted their local government. For context, 61% of Finns said they trusted the national government. The authors of the report concluded that this discrepancy was primarily influenced by the levels of citizen engagement in local government.
The local government is responsible for many of the decisions that have the most noticeable effect on constituents. From refuse collection and planning to road maintenance and libraries, these are the aspects of life that make a tangible difference to people’s way of life, and that means that citizens need to be able to both express their opinions and understand the reasoning behind decision-making. When the local government does not engage, it leads to a breakdown of trust.
This article explores the role that citizen engagement plays in local government and best practices for better interacting with the people that you represent.
What is citizen engagement in local government?
Citizen engagement is a two-way relationship between the community and decision-makers. It involves the council displaying openness and transparency over its decisions and processes, as well as consulting with the people that it represents over policies and projects. It is a practice that encourages participation in the work of the government body by citizens.
The engagement facilitates communication between the parties and helps each of them to understand the motivations and methods of the other. Its intention is to run the local government organisation in such a way that all stakeholders play their part in shaping a future that works in all interests, reducing disenfranchisement.
The importance of citizen engagement
Councils represent the interests of their funding citizens and are chosen by them to govern. Involving citizens in the operations of local government empowers them to hold decision-makers responsible for their actions.
When officials are aware that their decisions will be reviewed and that they are accountable for their promises, it motivates them to work harder to achieve the objectives they were appointed to accomplish. If they are unable to do so, citizens can legitimately request that they address issues promptly.
In conjunction with added accountability, increased transparency means that citizens are not prevented from analysing the mechanics of the local government process. This is also important for improving the trust that the community has in its governing body.
While local government is essential, fraud and corruption are significant issues that raise concerns among citizens. Whether founded on actual incidents or just perceptions, it can undermine the public's trust in the system. However, by fostering an open dialogue between citizens and officials, the likelihood of misconduct in decision-making is significantly reduced. This, in turn, enables citizens to feel confident that the council is operating in an ethical and trustworthy manner.
Greater community satisfaction
Citizen engagement provides constituents with ownership over the workings of local government. Even if they disagree with a decision, if they have been engaged in the process and seen that the decision was reached in a fair and democratic manner, they can be satisfied that the council is working in the way that it should.
Without that engagement, there is no mechanism for citizens to understand how the council came to a decision, and they are left feeling like they are not being properly represented.
More informed and effective decision-making
Although local government representatives are usually based locally, they cannot understand every single issue in every area of their jurisdiction. This is why engaging citizens is essential.
Through consultation, they can gain insight into what is happening on the streets, what effect decisions are having and where the council needs to shift its focus. This engagement helps to better inform councillors and help them hone their decision-making to make sure they make the most of the resources they have in hand.
Stronger relationships with the community
Establishing stronger relationships with the community is vital. A local government authority that engages with its citizens, actively listens to them, and communicates with them is more likely to have a stronger relationship with its constituents than a council that keeps its work separate from the voters.
When decisions are handed down without an easy means for the public to question or express their thoughts on them, it can create a tense relationship. This can make it challenging to garner support for future initiatives. Conversely, a council that engages with the community can communicate directly with them, ensuring the success of its schemes.
Types of citizen engagement
|Type of engagement
|What it entails
|Holding a public hearing on an issue allows constituents with an interest in that topic to air their views and listen to councillors’ views on the matter.
|Town hall meetings
|Town halls provide a chance to meet politicians and discuss a wider range of topics that are relevant to the work of the local government body.
|A quick way to gather the opinions of citizens is to invite them to take part in a survey. Although there is less of a dialogue in this case, the council can understand voter sentiment and can factor it into decision-making.
|In order to gain insight into an issue with citizens, bringing together small groups of people to discuss and debate their opinions on the topic and suggest solutions can help develop a policy.
|Social media outreach
|A council that is active on social media can help to spread important messages but also receive instant feedback and suggestions on a range of local issues.
|In order to serve the many different areas within their jurisdiction, neighbourhood associations can furnish councils with specific local knowledge that can be invaluable to inform decisions that will make the greatest difference.
|Allowing citizens to decide how part of the council’s budget is spent helps to empower them and lets them take ownership of some of the local government body’s work.
Three best practices for citizen engagement
1. Promote opportunities for community participation
To improve citizen engagement, it is important to not only provide chances for the community to participate in the work of the council but also to actively promote it. Engagement initiatives should not just be a box-ticking exercise to say that you have made an effort to create a dialogue; the real value comes from actually taking part in constructive engagement.
Set up public hearings, focus groups and other events and actively promote them to ensure they are as well attended and well used as possible. Only when you fully commit to engagement do you gain the most benefit from the process.
2. Hold regular open public forums
Online and other remote forms of communication are valuable for engagement, but actually meeting the public in open forums is an important way to show your openness to interacting with citizens.
When these events are regular occurrences, it shows the public that you want to forge a long-term relationship with them and that you are willing to engage both when things are going well and when they are challenging.
3. Improve transparency and accountability
The act of interacting with citizens helps to create accountability and transparency, but there are other ways to foster these two essential elements of your work as well.
Making sure that citizens can attend meetings or watch them online is a good start. Allowing them access to voting records and information about decision-making also helps you prove that you are open to scrutiny and are willing to take ownership of the decision-making process.
What is the difference between citizen engagement and civic engagement?
Citizen engagement refers specifically to the involvement of citizens in decision-making processes related to local government, while civic engagement refers to broader participation in community activities and organisations that contribute to the common good.
Can citizen engagement help improve public services?
Yes, citizen engagement can help improve public services by providing local officials with valuable feedback and insights into the needs and priorities of the community. By involving citizens in the decision-making process, local governments can make better-informed and effective decisions about the provision of public services.
What are the benefits of citizen advisory boards?
Citizen advisory boards provide a structured way for citizens to provide feedback and advice to local officials on issues that affect the community. By involving citizens in the decision-making process, advisory boards can help improve transparency, build trust between citizens and government, and ensure that the needs and priorities of the community are taken into account.
How can local governments overcome language barriers to citizen engagement?
Local governments can overcome language barriers by providing information in multiple languages, hiring bilingual staff and partnering with community organisations that can help translate, interpret and explain processes for residents who are non-native speakers.
Are there any downsides to citizen engagement?
While citizen engagement is generally seen as a positive development for local governance, there are some potential downsides. These include the risk of polarising the community, the potential for conflict or disagreement between citizens and local officials and the challenge of managing diverse viewpoints and opinions. However, these risks can be mitigated through effective communication, transparency and a willingness to listen and consider different perspectives.
There are numerous important benefits to citizen engagement in local government. They include helping constituents to feel they have ownership of the work of the council and providing the council with a better understanding of the issues that matter most to citizens.
Transparency is key to engagement, and using iBabs’ meeting platform helps local governments achieve this. It allows you to webcast meetings and let citizens contribute from their remote locations. It also tracks decisions, provides an audit trail and helps you display voting records on your website so citizens can find the information they need about the council and its work with ease. Request a demo today to find out how iBabs can help you engage your community like never before.