Civic Engagement: Themes & Lessons


This literature review distillation on civic engagement material focuses on the general themes, recommendations and challenges gleaned from academic journals, media articles and nonprofit briefs from literature reviews collected this year. The literature reviews discussed the motivations behind civic engagement, the influence of technology on civic engagement, case studies regarding government projects with open data or e-government in different public sectors, and social factors that can determine e-government participation. Given that civic engagement in its intersection with smart technology and IoT use in city infrastructure is a relatively new practice in city governance, much of the academic literature discusses how civic engagement efforts and analysis of them are still in nascent stages. Therefore, only initial and preliminary conclusions can be published in academic journals as opposed to cultivated evidence for results and/or policy changes over long periods of time.

In spite of that, we’ve gathered below the biggest three themes and three challenges about utilizing civic engagement in cities. Read on to learn about best practices and lessons that can be taken from the existing literature:

Part I: General Themes in Civic Engagement

I: Building Technology with Communities

What distinguishes community-driven civic tech from civic tech more generally is the extent to which the real people that a tool is intended to serve guide the lifecycle of that tool. Community-driven technologies are built at the speed of inclusion — the pace necessary not just to create a tool but to do so with in-depth communal input and stewardship — and directly respond to the needs, ideas, and wants of those they’re intended to benefit. The following criteria help determine to what degree city projects involving civic engagement are addressing people and real-world application above production[1]:

  1. Utilize existing social framework: practitioners must meet residents where they are and work with local partners to customize the best community approach
  2. Utilize existing tech skills and infrastructure that already exist within the community
  3. Create educational environments: communities have to have the opportunity to integrate the new tools and new skills into their lives on their own terms
  4. Distribute power: leading a collaborative process is the art of getting out of the way; utilize best practices

II: Motivation Behind Civic Engagement

Findings suggest that both self-concern and other-orientation are significant drivers of citizen reporting engagement, although the effect of self-concern appears to be stronger in comparison. As such, Gabriel Abu-Tayeh’s study on the question of whether self-concern or other-orientation is a stronger driver of citizen reporting engagement contributes to a better understanding of what motivates citizens to participate in citizen reporting platforms, which are a cornerstone application in many smart cities.[2]

The best way to drive and sustain engagement is to be responsive. The worst outcomes happen when people provide input and it goes into a black box. If a project team doesn’t respond, doesn’t iterate on their plans based on that feedback, or doesn’t let people know how they’ve added value, the likelihood that those community members are going to engage again decreases dramatically. People need to feel that their feedback has been heard, that people are very responsive to their contributions, that it matters.[3]

III: Investing in the Infrastructure of Engagement

Governments all over the world have implemented citizen-sourcing initiatives to integrate citizens into decision-making processes. A more participative decision-making process is associated with an open government and assumed to benefit public service quality and interactive value creation. Lisa Schmidthuber’s paper highlights the outcomes of open government initiatives and asks to what extent open government participation is related to perceived outcomes of open government. The findings of this paper suggest that active platform usage positively relates to several outcomes perceived by citizens, such as improved information flow and increased trust in and satisfaction with local government. This study suggests public managers should provide possibilities for citizen participation and interaction with government and promote citizen sourcing initiatives such as participants’ platform activity, as proactive platform participation has positive effects on perceived outcomes of open government.[4]

For citizen-sourcing to take off, the focus of much policymaking must shift from the present preoccupation with the design and development of public policy products to the design and facilitation of the processes themselves that will enable citizens to make and shape policy. Second, governments must invest more in the infrastructure of engagement. One of the lessons from the private sector’s experience with crowdsourcing is that its success is built on a shared “infrastructure of rules, institutions, knowledge, standards, and technologies provided by a mixed public and private sector initiative.” In the same way, citizensourcing will work only once governments have undertaken the necessary initiative that will yield a comprehensive framework for collecting, storing, retrieving, and making sense of citizen input.[5]

A multiple case study was conducted to explore the current state of open government in Austria. In spite of various managerial challenges, the analysis of case studies points to the wide-ranging impact achieved by new platform-based patterns of citizen engagement. These novel arrangements create public value by enhancing innovativeness, operational capacity, and legitimacy of the public agenda and decisions. Citizensourcing can thus provide organizations with a new opportunity to rearrange their organizational and decision-making processes.[6]

Part II: Challenges and Recommendations in Enacting Civic Engagement

I: Diversity in Civic Engagement

Scholars and policymakers have highlighted institutions that enable community participation as a potential buffer against existing political inequalities. Yet these venues may bias policy discussions in favor of an unrepresentative group of individuals. To explore who participates, Katherine Einstein’s research compiles a novel dataset by coding thousands of instances of citizens speaking at planning and zoning board meetings concerning housing development. The study matches individuals to a voter file to investigate local political participation in housing and development policy. The study finds that individuals who are older, male, longtime residents, voters in local elections, and homeowners are significantly more likely to participate in these meetings. These individuals overwhelmingly (and to a much greater degree than the general public) oppose new housing construction. These participatory inequalities have important policy implications and may be contributing to rising housing costs.[7]

While crowdsourcing is an increasingly common method of open-government practices to strengthen participatory democracy, its impact on governance is unclear. Using data from a crowdsourced city-plan update by the City of Palo Alto, California, this example examines the impact of a crowd's input on policy changes. Chen and Aitamurto used an enacted policy change to quantify government's response to crowd suggestions, whether crowd suggestions are adopted in the policy changes or not. While the city responded to less than half of the crowd's suggestions, the likelihood of its doing so increased by 51.42 percentage points when the crowd's ideas were amplified by a citizen advisory committee, a panel of residents working with the city in the policy update. They also found that the government is more likely to respond to crowd suggestions that are perceived as actionable. These two factors–CAC and the perceived data quality–constitute a filter which the crowd's suggestions have to pass to make into the policy. This filter created a hierarchy in the participatory practice. Although crowdsourcing intends to create equality and inclusiveness in policymaking, the findings reveal that the civic data overload and the filter hierarchy complicate the adoption of crowdsourcing as a democratic innovation in governance.[8]

II: Access to Technology

The best approaches go back to the basics, ask the right questions, and focus on engaging with people and representative populations. Well-designed partnerships among the public, private, and nonprofit sectors, along with philanthropic and public investment in physical spaces, informed by the lessons of human-centered design, can help tackle the crisis of representation and participation facing many American communities.[9] Some principles to follow:

  1. There is no “one-size-fits-all” model—different models will work better and be more inclusive depending on who participates, how they engage, and what types of opportunities are available
  2. Bureaucratic process and implementation can slow down progress—delays can discourage under-resourced residents from participating, while well-resourced residents familiar with the political process can wait it out
  3. Civic organizations can complement municipal government to help offset its limitations
  4. While technology and digital tools provide more civic engagement opportunities, technology alone does not effectively eliminate barriers to entry or help attract more diverse viewpoints
  5. Ideal resident input systems communicate to users what happened as a result of their contributions via positive feedback loops, which can help build their sense of agency
  6. Local governments and engagement structures should encourage proactive and positive engagement, as opposed to incentivizing residents to merely participate in response to an individual problem
  7. Improving civic engagement must include reforms that make democracy more equitable

III: Listening to the Community

Despite the potential of smart projects to drive innovation and economic growth, they are often met with mixed reception and a myriad of justifiable questions. This grassroots-generated skepticism points to a real need for better-designed processes around local smart-city deployments—processes that safeguard resident opinions, resident consent, and procedural justice as urban innovation is pursued. In the civic tech community of practice, the mantra of “build with, not for” reigns supreme. Technology is only as good as it is welcome, relevant, and user-friendly. While the “build with, not for” expectation has shaped the way civic hackers create new apps for our phones, it has not yet been widely embraced by the urban technologists deploying sensors, Wi-Fi kiosks, or other public technologies on our curbs. This reveals a very real and timely challenge as we pursue the 21st century, data-rich, connected, and responsive cities we all desire so much.[10]

Building an effective collaboration between the initiative and the government organization that needs to take action seems to be a key challenge for many of civic engagement initiatives. Improve The Neighborhood, for example, collects complaints about public space and shares this information with local governments so that they can take appropriate action. Some local governments appreciate this and process the complaints but others ignore them and only process complaints through their own channels. The success of the initiative largely depends on the willingness of the local governments to act upon the citizen-generated open data. In another case–the Open Elms Project–the initiator claimed it was easy to collaborate with government, because he organized the project ‘pro bono’ through a simple app and did not require funds. Or, as the initiator notes: “They were pretty open about this cooperation. If it had been internal, it would have never gotten off the ground. It's probably the way things should be done, it gave me freedom and it gave them freedom, it worked pretty well.” What can thus be concluded is that good collaboration is not a given, but instead requires that third parties and public organizations actively search for solutions that work for them both.[11]

[1]McCann, Laurenellen. “Building Technology With, Not For Communities: An Engagement Guide for Civic Tech.” Medium, 30 Mar. 2015,

[2]Abu-Tayeh, Gabriel, et al. “Exploring the Motives of Citizen Reporting Engagement: Self-Concern and Other-Orientation.” Business & Information Systems Engineering (2018) 60: 215., 2 Mar. 2018,

[3]Bradley, Jennifer. “‘People Need To Feel That Their Feedback Has Been Heard, That People Are Very Responsive To Their Contributions, That It Matters. That’s Ultimately What It’s About.’” Aspen Institute, 26 Apr. 2018,

[4]Schmidthuber, Lisa, et al. “Outcomes of Open Government: Does an Online Platform Improve Citizens’ Perception of Local Government?” International Journal of Public Sector Management, 10 Dec. 2018,

[5]Lukensmeyer, Carolyn and Lars Hasselblad Torres. “Citizensourcing: Citizen Participation in a Networked Nation” (2008). Civic Engagement in a Network Society, Information Age Publishing, Charlotte, NC, pp. 207-233.

[6]Schmidthuber, Lisa and Dennis Hilgers. “Unleashing Innovation Beyond Organizational Boundaries: Exploring Citizensourcing Projects.” International Journal of Public Administration, 19 Jan. 2017,

[7]Einstein, Katherine Levine, et al. “Who Participates in Local Government? Evidence from Meeting Minutes.” Perspectives on Politics, 10 Oct. 2018,

[8]Chen, Kaiping and Tanja Aitamurto. “Barriers for Crowd's Impact in Crowdsourced Policymaking: Civic Data Overload and Filter Hierarchy.” International Public Management Journal 22 (2019) 99-126. 16 Mar 2019,

[9]Polimédio, Chayenne, et al. “Where Residents, Politics, and Government Meet: Philadelphia’s Experiments with Civic Engagement.” New America, 15 Nov. 2018,

[10]Reidl, Linn. “Inclusion and Civic Engagement in Public Technology Building and Planning: How can we build inclusive, people-centered smart cities?” Benton Foundation, 8 Oct. 2018,

[11]Meijer, Albert and Suzanne Potjer. “Citizen-Generated Open Data: An Explorative Analysis of 25 Cases.” Government Information Quarterly 35 (2018) 613-621. 15 Oct 2018,

About the Author

Stefanie Le

Stefanie Le is a research assistant/writer at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation. She previously worked at the Information Disorder Lab at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, the International Criminal Court, and The Boston Globe. Stefanie holds two master’s degrees from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism (2018) and Harvard University (2016), where she specialized in international law and investigative reporting, and international relations respectively, and bachelor’s degrees in journalism and English literature from Emerson College.