The development of new digital channels for the public to communicate with local officials could make cities more responsive to the concerns of their residents and change the nature of civic participation. Most city governments, long ago, established websites to make residents aware of the services available to them and to post information and even extensive open data sets. Social media now enables them to go a step further. Many now maintain an active presence on the most popular social networks and interact with individuals in real time.
In addition to disseminating information, these channels also empower citizens to talk back. This may entail bringing neighbourhood safety issues to the attention of relevant agencies or weighing in on economic development plans. The government once made pronouncements, but now residents can engage in two-way conversations with public officials and agencies.
This is the first step toward engaging residents in making their own cities better. Beginning in the 1990s, a number of cities established non-emergency 311 telephone hotlines for lodging complaints, making maintenance requests or finding information about services and regulations. Many of them subsequently established 311 websites and disseminated their own 311 smartphone apps. New York City, for example, established a 311 call center in 2003. By 2016, the service was handling 36 million interactions with the public each year; nearly half of those take place on digital channels, including texts, the mobile app and social media channels. Many other cities, including Austin, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Philadelphia and Toronto, have similarly shifted 311 non-emergency service requests to mobile apps.
A company called SeeClickFix has created an open-source app that any city can customise and deploy. It is now used for citizen reporting in hundreds of communities, including many smaller cities. These types of channels help residents request assistance with mundane issues such as potholes, graffiti, broken streetlights and dangerous intersections. But in a bigger sense, they give cities millions of ears to the ground. As these interactions grow in number and scale, they yield valuable crowdsourced data that can be mined for patterns, predictions and prioritisation.
Dynamic two-way communication not only gives cities a better picture of their residents’ key concerns but also draws people into the policy-making process. In the past, the government would gauge public opinion on certain issues by allowing a few hours of comment at town halls or by conducting surveys. But citizens of Seoul, one of the most wired cities in the world, can weigh in on proposed municipal policies with the mVoting mobile app.
This opens the process to millions of voices, taking a more accurate pulse and even inviting the public to post their own proposals. Paris has implemented a participatory budget, inviting citizens to post project ideas and then holding an online vote so the public can decide which ones merit funding. Cities can also expand participation by holding open data hackathons to solve civic problems. Map Kibera, for example, invites the residents of Nairobi to contribute to an open data mapping project.
Platforms that enhance civic participation can be implemented with relatively little investment by cities. But they could yield substantial intangible benefits in terms of crowdsourcing better decisions and make people feel that their voices are being heard. The effectiveness of these applications and initiatives can vary depending on their exact purpose and on whether local government is really prepared to respond to what they hear. If local agencies ask for input and then do not follow through and deliver, the entire experience could leave residents feeling even more disconnected. Cities may need to keep their interactions very practical and limit them to areas where they have the resources to respond.