The Critics Agree: Citizen Engagement is Key


These days, it seems like technology is moving at the speed of light. In-home cameras monitor pets when owners are away or allow parents to keep an eye on their young children from different rooms. Streetlight sensors can monitor and control the flow of traffic in busy city intersections. Autonomous vehicles are making vast strides in several testing sites around the country. And mobile devices have allowed for closer contact between residents and local governments than ever before. Truly smart cities are seemingly right around the corner.

Yet, these proposed advances are not without controversy or criticism. Many, if not all, of these technological developments affect the daily lives of the residents who live where the new technology is placed. While projects like Sidewalk Labs’ Toronto project aim to create entire smart city neighborhoods and “promised to be a proving ground for the latest thinking in sustainable design and technology integration into urban planning,” they are accompanied by significant concerns about privacy, safety, and potential new threats from hacking. Oftentimes, well-intentioned efforts such as making communications between city governments and their residents easier through mobile apps can further exacerbate the divide between citizens who are able to participate civically in their communities and those who are pushed away due to financial, technological, or language barriers.

Citizen engagement helps cities to understand the needs of residents, particularly in informed planning and permitting and reaching out to undervoiced areas. Effective citizen engagement helps cities to avoid attempting to revitalize their cities with smart technology without consulting the residents of the neighborhoods they’re hoping to improve. As Myung Lee, the Executive Director of Cities of Service, a nonprofit organization that helps mayors build stronger cities by modifying the way local government and citizens work together, said in her interview with Data-Smart City Solutions: Customer service is important when it comes to helping cities design programs for their residents because city governments need to know who their consumer is and how to engage with them. And that comes from engaging with residents about what they want to see in their cities.

Informed Planning and Permitting - Cary, North Carolina (E-scooters)

E-scooters, or electric scooters, are the latest micro-mobility transportation trend and have taken large cities across the United States by storm. They are similar in concept to bike share programs with a pay-as-you-ride rate structure. However, they also utilize a dockless system—meaning users can pick up and drop off the scooters anywhere, potentially blocking sidewalks, rights-of-way, and public or private property and creating a nuisance for cities and their residents. Furthermore, the presence of e-scooters creates a host of personal and public safety factors to consider and regulate: wearing helmets, driving guidelines, riding with more than one person, and sharing roads and sidewalks with pedestrians, bicyclists, and drivers.

By the time e-scooters appeared on the streets and sidewalks of Cary, North Carolina—a town of approximately 170,000 residents and the seventh largest municipality in the state—in September 2018, e-scooters had already arrived in the neighboring municipalities of Raleigh and Durham. This gave Cary city officials an advantage to start proactively monitoring community discussions about e-scooters and the municipal actions by their neighbors. “We spent a lot of time trying to consider how to navigate the town’s approach to electric scooters,” said Carolyn Roman, the Services Design Coordinator of Cary. “We realized there could be this balanced benefit to our citizens while also being mindful of our operational and safety challenges as a municipality.”

Town officials utilized Imagine Cary, a long-term comprehensive plan that sets out the long term vision, policies, and actions for the city by 2040, to structure their approach. A chapter within that plan, Move, is dedicated to transportation and addresses how to anticipate changing market preferences and technologies that will place different demands on how town officials think about transportation. As a result, officials knew that they had to tap into what residents were saying about e-scooters.

To understand community sentiment, Cary staff developed a pilot project to monitor social media and other sources of online discourse such as the mayor’s blog and Facebook groups with ties to the downtown community. They partnered with Zencity, a tool for helping make data-driven recommendations to town councils, which allowed Cary officials to monitor and analyze publicly available posts on social media like Twitter and Facebook. Furthermore, Cary officials kept track of and monitored e-scooter coverage from their local traditional media outlets.

“What we noted was that more than half of the discourse was categorized as either neutral or positive,” said Roman. “Many people actually thought of the scooters as a positive sign that our downtown core was really developing and attracting a different type of audience.”

By December 2018, Cary officials presented the town council with their recommendation regarding e-scooter regulation in the municipality based off of their three-month-long sentiment analysis pilot and data collection of ride usage: adopting a “wait and see” approach in addition to subtly adjusting an ordinance that would give the town permission to remove objects from the right of way in order to ensure safe passage for residents. The ordinance was passed by the town council, who appreciated staff’s approach to e-scooters, explained Roman.

“[The council was] basically appreciative that we were being mindful of what we could do and still keeping in mind what citizens were saying,” said Roman. “And I think it was really refreshing when what we saw play out in the media was that we weren’t jumping straight to the typical fees and leveraging different rules and regulations for these companies.”

Since the initial pilot project with Zencity was a success, town officials have entered into an annual agreement with the tool that has been applied to other infrastructure efforts in their local government. In updating their 311 city service request system, Cary now has all 311 cases funneling into the platform in addition to Google analytics. “Being able to see a daily digest of what people are calling about, where people are visiting on our website, and what they’re saying in the virtual space is tremendous in getting us to a place where we feel like we can really serve our citizens in the digital age,” said Roman.

Reaching Out to Undervoiced Areas - Chicago, Illinois (Updated 311 System)1

The city of Chicago’s updated 311 mobile rollout in 2018 is a notable example of a city government reaching out to undervoiced areas. After a process of community outreach, beta testing, and continuous iteration, Chicago unveiled CHI 311 to its residents.

The aim of the updated CHI 311 is to give access to city services to as many residents as possible—especially to residents that historically did not utilize 311 services—and to do so the Department of Innovation and Technology (DoIT) sought the advice of its target audience. “We are really proud of the new community-facing component because we consulted our residents. Based on their feedback and their vision, we continue to add new features every few weeks,” said Danielle DuMerer, former DoIT Commissioner who oversaw the 311 system development with managing deputy CIO of DoIT Derrick Brownlee.

DoIT employed a multi-pronged approach to reach different types of Chicago residents. The team conducted design workshops and focus groups with residents, and reached out to communities in Chicago that historically had lower usage of 311 services. They surveyed residents about whether or not they were using the current 311 service, their likes and dislikes, and what barriers existed if they were not using the service. The team additionally asked residents what their vision of the new system was and used that input for their design.

“We learned a number of things from folks through that process. We learned that transparency matters—exactly where something is in the process, how many steps, how long it should take,” said DuMerer. “The ability to remain anonymous for certain request types was important to people, especially if they’re calling on an issue that might be related to their rental units, they may fear retaliation. These are some of the main things we heard from people through that process and we were able to work that into the design of the system.”

The new 311 service aims to serve the city’s diverse and multilingual population with human translation services. The CHI 311 mobile app and website are in the process of having their written content translated into five targeted languages and developing two-way notification processing to be available in those languages online in the near future, according to Brownlee.

After the multi-channel accessible 311 system was launched at the end of 2018, the city has seen an increase in 311 city service usage from areas that historically had not submitted service requests, said Brownlee. In order to maintain this momentum and increase civic engagement within communities that historically didn’t make use of 311 services, DoIT also provides digital skills training if residents need support in a program called Chicago Digital Learn. DoIT trained all of the city’s librarians across Chicago’s 80 library branches in digital skills to assist residents. This effort is further bolstered by the Cyber Navigators program, which trained teachers who provide one-on-one visual skills training at 60 library branch locations across the city.

With extensive planning, outreach to their community and new technology, CHI 311 has been able to utilize technology to increase community engagement in an efficient and successful way.

Increasing Government Responsiveness - Seoul, Korea (Social Media)

Citizen engagement has made its mark in major international cities as well. A case study published in Government Information Quarterly by scholars Seok-Jin Eom, Hanchan Hwang, and Jun Houng Kim highlights the use of social network analysis (SNA) on Seoul, Korea’s Twitter network of public services, analyzing the interactions between the mayor, local government, and citizens via the social media platform.

The research showed that the mayor of Seoul played the most important role as a “bridging hub in the Twitter network” between different groups of citizens and public officials in addition to the most connected users in the network. The mayor contributed largely to enhancing government communication and responsiveness by making it possible to overcome the division between citizens and the local government, and the information imbalance between the mayor, city officials, and residents.

In relation to the other mayors and governors in Korea, the researchers found that the mayor of Seoul, Park Won-soon, participated more actively in the Twitter network of public services. As an official, Mayor Park had high interactivity with residents via Twitter and high connectivity with an official Twitter account, unlike other governors who in comparison had low interactivity with residents and little connectivity with an official Twitter account.

On Twitter, Mayor Park utilized the platform to receive citizens’ feedback on improving public services and encouraged citizens to participate in the policy-making process. Under his administration, Seoul’s municipal government invested both financial and organizational resources for building “citizen-friendly” social media networks for public administration purposes. As a result, Seoul became the most active local government to adopt social media by proactively using Twitter and Facebook to communicate with its residents regarding civil administration services.

In November 2012, after the success of his personal social media presence, the mayor then had his public officials in charge of information and communication technology (ICT) create the Seoul Social Media Center—an integrated platform where Mayor Park and other public officials can collect citizen claims from thirty-nine Seoul Social Network System accounts (including the Twitter and Facebook accounts operated by Mayor Park). Then, the administrative procedure is triggered in which the claims are processed from registration to division assignment where they are reviewed by the appropriate public officials for a response. Finally, the results are then disclosed to all residents.

Within the first year, the Seoul Social Media Center processed approximately twenty thousand citizen claims. In March 2014, the Seoul Social Medial Center and other online civil petition application channels were integrated into Seoul Eungdapso, which is the response point for the Seoul metropolitan area, to create a more convenient use of the online civil petition services for citizens.

This use case shows how to engineer social media as a tool for improving government responsiveness and subsequently adds to the nascent study of the relationship between social media and local government.


These are just three cases that illustrate the broad benefits of citizen engagement. Even beyond informed planning and permitting, reaching under voiced areas, and improving government responsiveness, there are countless additional benefits to engaging the residents of cities before enacting a technological change. In all of these cases, it’s best to follow a simple but meaningful principle: build with, not for.

1Portions of this example originally appeared in a previous Data-Smart City Solutions story.

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.