How To Utilise The Power Of Online Citizen Engagement

One of the most powerful tools a government organisation has in its arsenal is the ability to interact with the people that it represents. Creating this two-way, consultative relationship can bring many benefits to local councils and municipalities. As the World Bank states: “Citizens play a critical role in advocating and helping to make public institutions more transparent, accountable, and effective, and contributing innovative solutions to complex development challenges.”

Whereas once this engagement would take place solely in face-to-face, in-person situations, nowadays, a majority of interactions take place online. However, many government organisations have yet to take advantage of their online presence and communicate effectively with their constituents digitally. This article provides a step-by-step guide to boosting your online citizen engagement to make the most of this opportunity. 

What is citizen engagement?

Citizen engagement plays a key role in good governance for councils, municipalities and other government agencies and public bodies. It involves opening lines of communication in both directions between the organisation and the people it represents. This allows for the free flow of information in both directions, helping citizens feel more engaged in the democratic process and over decisions that affect them directly. At the same time, it ensures the governing body understands the true concerns and feelings of its constituents and is positioned to uncover novel solutions to issues. 

The desired outcome is that the council makes better decisions and concentrates on the matters that are really of concern to citizens. This engagement can be gained through a consultative approach (requesting feedback), collaboratively (working with citizens to develop solutions) or by empowering communities with the resources to implement their own programmes of change. 

Why should government organisations focus on online citizen engagement? 

The rise in online access to services has been rapid in recent years. Uswitch found that in 2009, 28% of UK mobile phone users accessed the internet on their devices. By 2022, this rose to 86%. With this many people carrying this connection to the digital world around in their pockets every day, it provides easy and direct access to citizens. 

The increase in remote working is another indicator that our lives are now increasingly spent online. In 2019, only 4.7% of UK employees worked from home. In 2023, 39% said that they worked either full-time or part-time remotely. 

Online engagement helps government bodies speak to their citizens in the space that they use for communication in their day-to-day lives. It is a direct way to access their feedback and opinions. 

Tools for online citizen engagement

Below are some examples of tools local councils can utilise for online citizen engagement.

Direct participationE-petitions and public feedback mechanismsCouncils ask citizens directly to voice their opinions on suggested policies, current schemes and other actions of the governing body in order to ascertain the sentiment within the electorate.
Participatory budgetingThis involves asking citizens to distribute a portion of the governing body’s budget as they see fit, placing the funds in the areas that the electorate decrees to be most in need of improvement. 
Decision-making platformsAsking outright for citizens to vote on a proposal for the local area is a powerful method for engaging citizens as they take part in the decision-making process. 
Indirect participationOnline surveys and pollsPosting online surveys and polls provides a method of gauging citizen sentiment in an informal manner that can help in the design of further engagement policies.
Social mediaSocial media is another medium through which citizens can reply and make suggestions relating to the actions of the government organisation. Regular posting and engaging on social media provides added transparency
Voting and decision reportsCouncillors can be held accountable for their actions by publishing reports online of their voting records and the reasoning behind decisions taken. 
Public meetingsWhen you stream public meetings online, this increases their reach and provides an opportunity for more citizens to engage with the processes of the council. 

Challenges and best practices for online citizen engagement

Bridge accessibility gaps

Although digital take-up has been rapid, there are still many in society who do not have access or have limited access to the internet. This means you must consider them when planning online engagement policies. In addition, are your digital engagement methods available to those with restricted sight, for example, or for those who do not speak the local language? Ensure you close these gaps. 

Foster digital literacy

One way to improve accessibility to your online citizen engagement is to proactively help lift digital literacy within your area. Produce explainers to aid people access the online content they need and provide training sessions to narrow the digital divide. 

Build trust

Being open and honest with citizens helps them trust your online messaging. In a world where fake news and other misleading information are easily spread, it is essential to provide evidence to back up your posts and refrain from spinning negative situations too vociferously. 

Ensure data privacy and security

One concern with engaging citizens in a digital space is the fact that this can open the organisation to data protection concerns. If you hold information on members of the electorate, you must comply with the local data protection legislation, such as GDPR in the European Union and the UK. 

Ensure two-way communication

Real engagement is not a one-way street. It should be a discussion that ensures the citizen knows they are being listened to and that the organisation acknowledges their contribution. This helps them feel involved with the process and not just used for their opinion. 

How to build an engaged online citizen community

1. Choose your objectives

For effective engagement, choose your objectives carefully. Be focused on what you want to achieve and you are more likely to succeed than by taking a scattergun approach and attempting to engage in as many different ways all at once. 

By being methodical, you can measure your success more easily and adjust your approach more effectively. This requires you to analyse your current engagement strategy and consider where increased interaction with voters can be of most benefit to both the governing body and local citizens. 

Streaming public meetings online is a good example. Physical meetings are difficult for many citizens to attend due to location, time, calendar clashes and other commitments. By streaming the meeting, it is easier for citizens to attend and engage at the time or to catch up afterwards with proceedings. It is easy to track these metrics and understand how effective your efforts are. 

2. Choose the right platform

There are numerous digital platforms available to you to aid with increased engagement. You should look into the options and consider which are best placed to help you meet your objectives and are accessible to the people you are trying to engage. 

Using the example of improving access to public meetings, look for a meeting platform like iBabs, which will log the numbers of people watching and allow you to create a public archive of agendas, decisions and other important documents. 

3. Encourage participation

If you want the electorate to interact with your government organisation, tell them about it and create opportunities for active engagement. When opening up your processes and encouraging voters to interact, you signal your intent and create a positive attitude towards your efforts from the start. 

Consider how you use your local government’s social media for example. Don’t just post and forget about it. Ask open questions, encourage comments, reply to them and escalate concerns that arise from citizens intersecting with your posts. Your social channels shouldn’t just be a noticeboard for council information. They should be the beginning of a conversation. 

Create polls and surveys for citizens to take part in and make engagement a natural part of your processes. 

4. Ensure accessibility

Just as you would always consider accessibility with a council building, so you should with digital engagement. You will not gain an accurate overview of the situation if there are parties in society who are excluded from participating.

This can include introducing more computers at libraries within your local area and making it mandatory to produce translated versions of digital materials in the languages most often spoken within your communities. Another example is using detailed alt descriptions on images that you post online and on social media so screen readers can describe them to the user. 

The UK government states that one in five people in the country have a long-term illness or disability with more suffering a temporary disability. This is why it has created a list of requirements for public sector bodies in relation to websites and mobile apps. 

5. Foster a safe environment

Unfortunately, the online space can resemble a heated environment at times, particularly when citizens debate the ways in which the council spends their taxation money. Whilst robust discussion can be helpful for the council in terms of understanding voter sentiment, you must be sure not to let it spill over into insults, libel and other behaviour that could negatively impact other users. 

Ensure there is someone to moderate online public discussion and that you implement guidelines that bind people to keep the conversation respectful, removing any comments that do not meet these standards. 

Frame your online conversations in a positive manner, asking for positive suggestions and steering citizens towards constructive solutions and away from insults. 

6. Promote transparency

Your online presence is the ideal place to promote transparency, which in turn encourages engagement. For example, creating a section of your website dedicated to displaying the voting records of your members helps citizens understand what their representatives stand for and how decisions are made within the government body. 

When councils vote through iBabs’ meeting software, for example, the information on these votes updates the section of their website for each council member, providing an easy-to-use dashboard that shows how they voted on a particular topic, the percentage of votes they have made for or against motions and other details. 

This information being public allows citizens to hold officials accountable and displays a commitment to transparency. iBabs works with many municipalities and councils in the Netherlands, the UK and beyond to provide this service. 

7. Analyse results

As with any policy within government agencies, only by analysing your results can you truly understand if it is working as desired. Make sure you look back at your objectives at regular intervals and assess your progress. If something is not working, try another approach to elicit more online citizen participation. 


What is the most effective form of online citizen engagement?

Any engagement that brings citizens closer to the democratic process is an effective form of civic engagement. Being able to attend meetings on a live stream helps them to see how decisions are made and the issues at play on all sides of the discussion. Being able to view voting records is another way to increase transparency that gives citizens the chance to hold government officials to account. 

How can governments ensure inclusivity in online platforms?

Governments can ensure inclusivity by providing platforms that are accessible to all, regardless of disability, language or technology access. This involves offering content in multiple languages, ensuring websites are compliant with local disability provisions and even providing offline alternatives or support for those with limited internet access.

What are the risks associated with online citizen participation?

Key risks include misinformation, data privacy breaches, online harassment and the digital divide that can exclude certain groups. There's also the risk of echo chambers, where only like-minded opinions are shared and reinforced. Local government bodies should be careful to curate their online presence to avoid one-sided discussions, as well as putting in place moderation and security measures. 

How can citizens protect their data and privacy when engaging online?

Citizens can protect their data and privacy by using strong, unique passwords, enabling two-factor authentication, being cautious about the personal information they share and understanding the privacy policies of the platforms they use. The government body should make clear the security measures on its website to inform citizens before they share data. 


Citizens are only going to spend more of their time online in the coming years, and that is what makes mastering online citizen engagement important. Government bodies have an opportunity to interact with your electorate in a way that encourages them to share their thoughts, concerns and potential solutions, which helps them understand what is important to the people they represent. Such an approach also displays transparency and emboldens accountability, which increases trust. 

iBabs helps local governments organise meetings efficiently, stream and archive the discussion, share meeting minutes and display voting records. To find out more, request a demo for your government body today.

References and further reading 

iBabs Meeting Assessment
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