What is Online Civic Engagement for Local and State Government?

Governments and other civic organizations use public input to drive dialogue and inform decision-making. Technological advancements have made collaborations between residents and government easier now than ever before. Just a click away, software-as-a-service (SaaS) solutions and other online community platforms, such as Facebook, Nextdoor, and Twitter, enable and encourage public feedback from community members to the administration of local or state governments.

What is Online Civic Engagement?

Online civic engagement refers to the act of stakeholders—such as individuals, businesses, and organizations—identifying and addressing issues of public concern using digital tools accessible by state, local, or municipal government entities (and adopted by them for this very purpose). Examples of issues include referendums, tax measures, and community improvement projects, such as a parks and recreation master plan or a noise ordinance.

Online civic engagement is:

  • Initiated by governments and other public entities for the purpose of community engagement
  • A formal method for disseminating information for public consideration and receiving feedback
  • One way for citizens to drive change in today’s government
  • Crucial for today’s governments in becoming more modern, effective, and accountable

An intentional dialogue established by public organizations for constituents, online civic engagement increases public trust and can improve public buy-in on strategic initiatives. Members of a community are more likely to support a project or policy in the long term when given the initial opportunity to weigh in and be heard.

How to Engage Citizens by Leveraging Technology

Online civic engagement is not just about collecting feedback, it’s also about sharing information. From a citizen perspective, participating in online civic engagement efforts gives you a chance to tap into local government data, such as budgets and performance metrics, that may impact your opinion. A better informed citizenry benefits all parties involved.

OpenGov is one of six popular community engagement platforms. Others include ClearGov, Socrata, Bang the Table, mySidewalk, and LiveStories. Cloud-based SaaS platforms like OpenGov offer tools for both internal and external stakeholders that transform raw data into graphs, maps, and other bite-sized, intuitive, and interactive visualizations. Digital general ledgers increase financial transparency. By making data meaningful and available in ways residents understand, governments keep residents informed in a highly transparent way. When leveraged with social media, such information combats noise and informs community members before they participate in online conversations, such as a virtual town hall.

Benefits to Governments and Other Public Entities

In order to get to the place where receiving feedback and collaborating with residents is most effective, governments and other public entities must have organized and clear budgeting and performance processes in place. To get feedback on a public works project, there must first be a well-defined idea backed by data.

Online civic engagement helps governments focus on results, but it also encourages governments to break down silos and supplement Excel spreadsheets with digital collaboration. OpenGov offers budgeting and planning software that seamlessly integrates with online citizen engagement solutions to power more effective government.

Surveys and Virtual Town Halls

Digital civic engagement platforms can reduce barriers to involvement and voice the ideas and opinions of under-represented demographics at traditional events such a council meetings and town halls. Since only a small portion of the population attends in-person public hearings, governments can supplement these efforts with convenient and easy virtual town halls, online forums, and virtual podiums. Government leaders, from finance directors to city managers, leverage surveys to collect feedback from citizens about upcoming projects. OpenGov’s Stories is a way for governments to publish engaging narratives and share information with communities.

Two-Way Communication: What to do with Feedback

Individuals who participate in surveys and never hear the outcome are not likely to participate again down the road. After engaging the public, it’s important to report back to participants. Posting short explanations of how feedback was used, known as an Outcome Statement, is one way for governments to close the loop.

Ensure Lasting Change

Online civic engagement may just be one consideration of many for local and state governments, but it is critical for organizational success, affecting every process from budgeting and strategic planning to reporting and performance management. Now more than ever constituents are holding public agencies accountable for amplifying their voices and addressing their needs with follow-through and responsible governing. Gaining the confidence and trust of residents may not be easy, but it is well worth it.

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