Empowering People and Communities: Developing a Vocabulary and Implementing Digital Approaches

Governments in the UK today face a myriad set of crises that have damaged their legitimacy, capacity, and ability to reclaim and maintain public trust. According to a 2019 survey, 72% of British adults now believe democracy in the UK requires “quite a lot” or “a great deal” of improvement. Declining confidence in the British government has been paired with persistent calls for something better.

As a team of four LSE students working with the Centre for Public Impact, we aim to develop a better understanding and a lexicon for the varieties of engagement that public servants are using to better connect with communities. This blog highlights examples of local governments across the UK using innovative digital methods to overcome those barriers and build trust with those they serve. 

How Digital Tools can Improve Engagement

Solutions to declining trust typically involve boosting some variation of public “engagement” “listening” or “participation.” The overuse and poor definition of these terms frequently brings them to buzzword status, stripping them of proximity to real people, real problems, and real consequences affected by political and policy decisions.

However, “engagement” is an important salve to broken trust, when well-defined and grounded in reality and humanity. We think of “engagement” as dialogue and deliberation between people and government that improves a government’s connection to citizens, while providing them with transparency into the processes of public institutions, and a meaningful say in decision-making and implementation.

Traditional approaches to engagement — such as town halls, focus groups, referendums, and other opportunities for citizens to directly shape government decision-making — can provide government with legitimacy and people with a voice, but by nature exclude many.

Societal discrimination and unconscious bias in policymaking systematically marginalises the voices of women and minorities, and degrades trust.

Among many others, parents and other carers, non-English (and English-as-a-second-language) speakers who may be unable to present their concerns to English-speaking officials, and non-citizens who cannot vote are locked out of participation.

Digital platforms and the internet present exciting opportunities to build a more participatory democracy and engage citizens in meaningful dialogue. Digitisation may alleviate many exclusionary aspects of traditional engagement: enabling people to access deliberative forums remotely, translating information about government services into additional languages, and reducing the time required to make maintenance requests or report issues.

Digitisation does present its own challenges: engagement can be perceived as too “top-down” and inflexible, and “digital exclusion” disadvantages citizens without or with limited access to the internet and citizens less able to use computers due to disability or lack of digital “literacy.” To combat exclusion and maximize impact, digital tools should be approached as complements to traditional engagement methods, to highlight and uplift the inclusionary aspects of both approaches. This idea is reflected in Tackling Challenges Together, a recent report produced by CPI in collaboration with Engage Britain.

Proposing a Vocabulary of Digital Citizen Engagement

As our research group studies digital engagement across the UK, we’re finding that governments interact with people for many purposes, so we’re developing a vocabulary to categorize and understand the many ways governments connect with people. We’re proposing four key forms of engagement, which build upon each other to improve participation in government. Here’s our first go:

We most often interact with government by utilising its basic local services, like public transport, mail delivery, or trash pickup.

These daily interactions provide opportunities for a sort of service-based engagement, in which governments work with citizens to increase access to, and use of, services or social programs.

We’re seeing this in Coventry with the Digital Coventry program, which is consolidating council services and information online, allowing residents to request assistance and provide continuous feedback on the quality of government programs–all while expanding broadband services and access to connected devices.

Engagement also implies dialogue, starting with government talking to people.

On the most basic level, informative engagement provides citizens with information about government actions and visibility into government operations.

These informative connections are not only one-way. They can also help the government gather more and better information about how citizens interact with their environment and community. For example, Cardiff has assembled a Citizens’ Panel made of community members who are briefed and consulted on various local issues, and publish regular newsletters informing citizens of actions taken and city services.

Engagement can be made more meaningful when communities are organized, and people share their experiences and ideas with each other.

Participatory engagement lays the foundations for dialogue between neighbors to take place, allowing citizens to share opinions, voice common problems, and collaboratively construct solutions or policy ideas — with each other, and with representatives of government.

In Newcastle, the online Let’s Talk Newcastle platform is giving citizens and government workers a digital space to discuss developments in the community, political issues, and experiences with council services. 

Participatory processes often lead to policy change as the government learns more about their people. But while these programs are defined by informality and casual conversations,

consultative engagement provides a replicable two-way structure in which the government seeks public input, adheres to outcomes produced by deliberation, and meaningfully incorporates citizens’ feedback to change services and programs.

The Greater Cambridge Partnership has pursued consultation through a Citizen’s Assembly on improving public transportation, recruiting community representatives to deliberate on proposed changes and gathering citizens’ feedback using digital mapping tools.

It’s crucial to note that these methods can’t succeed on their own: they are complementary parts of a holistic picture of community-driven governance. Each of the case studies that we will evaluate over the course of this project applies one or more of these approaches–which, when working together, comprise a comprehensive set of meaningful, two-way reforms. These engagement strategies, served by a diverse set of digital tools and approaches, have the potential to make government more responsive, effective, and democratic. 

Over the next month, we’ll see them in action across the UK and evaluate their success. If you work at a local government and are interested in contributing to the conversation, please do get in touch with the CPI team. Stay tuned for the results!