Citizen engagement

from really good theory to game changing practice

what is citizen engagement?

Citizen engagement (CE) is the formal label for widely referenced concept. It’s about getting individuals directly involved in governing their community or society. CE looks to increase the participation of citizens in the key dialogues that inform decision making. This can occur in well-established ways like townhall meetings, through to contemporary, technology enabled initiatives where individuals become part of the service delivery infrastructure. Across the globe countries are adopting CE-inspired mechanisms to improve government decision making, increase transparency and drive better developmental outcomes.

what’s happening in Australia and around the globe?

CE isn’t a new concept. In fact, it’s a premise that is fundamental to long standing principles of democracy such as the social contract and self determination. However, the structure and approach to engaging citizens across the globe and in Australia is changing.

As a community we are becoming accustomed to the idea that the answers to some of our most tricky policy challenges can be found through the citizenry. Ten years ago it would have been laughable to run a design competition to solve a social policy problem, but not anymore. Countries around the world are evolving the way in which they view public administration, and the way in which they construct and resource their government agencies.

In some cases this is being paired with clever CE initiatives creating the opportunity to radically change the way we resource and deliver good government: crowd sourcing policy solutions, standing online policy forums, community cabinets. Just over the water in NZ they have even trialled joint document production to develop legislation. Wouldn’t it be great if rather than talking about rationalising government we formally and deliberately reconfigured government to facilitate citizen participation in decisions and actions that affect them? It’s a whole new way of resourcing our shared public infrastructure beyond the formal mechanisms of revenue raising.

The difference now, as opposed to years past, is that innovations in ICT make it feasible to mobilise communities en masse. We now have the potential to rapidly expand the level of citizen contribution to public debate and policy setting in low cost ways. 

is it really as easy as just deciding to do it?

While all this is good in theory, and there are examples of great practice from around the world, CE is yet to have a wide spread, and profound impact on the way governments are administered. In many cases engagement activities are under resourced, misaligned or not borne out a genuine desire to utilise public voice to directly affect decision making. In many instances the barriers to effective participation appear too great. Individuals feel their institutions are not transparent or disabled by bureaucratic inertia. Governments are concerned with cost, perceived ethical conflicts and the resource implications of trying to maintain an active feedback channels.

To effectively embrace CE in Australia, on a scale that makes a difference, will require significant shifts in the way we construct, operate and resource our government agencies. New capabilities will need to be developed, policy setting mechanisms redesigned, and the culture and mindset of public servants, politicians and public commentators shifted. The political and social context is critical factor in whether citizens can effectively contribute to policy issues. Despite all this, given the complex and intransigent policy challenges facing Australia and the global community we probably don’t really have a choice but to try something fundamentally different.

so where to from here?

CE has the potential to transform the policy cycle at all levels of Australian government. When applied strategically, it can be used to open up opportunities for co-development that have not previously been achieved. This will exponentially increase the sheer number of resources available to solve our tough challenges. We’ve put some ideas below on how we could do this (using a traditional policy cycle for accessibility only!). We’d love to hear your examples or ideas too. Continue the conversation @morethanideas_

citizen engagement in practice