By Seongkyung Cho (ASU), Karen Mossberger (ASU), David Swindell (ASU), and J. David Selby (ASU)
Citizen consultation and participation in decision making at the local level has a long history in the U.S., rooted in traditions such as the New England town meeting. In recent years, however, new digital platforms have emerged to facilitate online town hall meetings or to gather collective input on policy issues in new ways. Who are the governments experimenting with these participatory innovations? We explore this question using US national survey data that examines use of these platforms, goals and activities for civic engagement, and practices for local innovation.
The participatory platforms we discuss are dedicated to the purpose of providing two-way interactions between citizens and government. They are invited spaces, initiated by governments for citizen feedback, ideas or discussion (Kersting 2012). They differ from social media because they are designed specifically to host engagement on policy issues, often with background information for citizens and analytics for use by local governments.
Some platforms emphasize ranking or voting more than discussion, but most allow some type of commenting. For example, Peak Democracy/Open Town Hall hosts surveys, forums, and live online meetings. Participants can use MindMixer to solicit ideas or to discuss issues, review background information or maps, vote, review outcomes, and share through social media. Bang the Table includes forums, surveys, geo-location tools, quick polls, and moderation. Budget Allocator facilitates simulations and discussions for participatory budgeting. IdeaScale permits idea submission, idea merging, voting and commenting, gamification, and integration with social media. While an earlier version of Metroquest focused on quick polls, where the local government determined the choices, the platform can now host a variety of priorities, scenarios, projects, and budget choices that participants can rate or select.
What factors account for local governments’ use of online citizen engagement platforms? We analyzed 2016 data from a nationally representative survey conducted by the International City/County Management Association (ICMA), which asks local governments about the extent to which they use online engagement platforms as well as other tools for citizen participation. Additionally, respondents were asked about their goals for participation as well as attitudes and practices for innovation. Among the survey respondents, 19.0% indicated that their government had used online civic engagement platforms, so this was a relatively novel way of interacting with the public.
Our results demonstrate that platform use is clearly embedded in a broader context of activities and goals embracing citizen engagement rather than a desire to innovate.
- First, the results show that jurisdictions using platforms were more likely to view public engagement as empowering citizens rather than processes for informing, consulting, involving or collaborating,
- Second, we found that jurisdictions using social media are not more likely to use online engagement platforms. In contrast, the count of offline engagement activities has a positive association with platform adoption (with 14 different activities included in the survey).
- Third, counter to expectations, local governments that scored higher on the innovation measure were not more likely to adopt online participatory platforms and were not different from jurisdictions with lower levels of innovation.
- Finally, population size exhibits a positive association with experimentation with online platforms, and local governments in the Northeast were statistically less likely than other regions to use online participatory platforms.
Overall, experimentation with platforms seems to be driven by organizational and/or community commitments to participation in large communities. Our results indicate that the use of online platforms supplements existing offline tools employed by local governments. This suggests that digital participation is an extension of more general goals and practices for citizen engagement. Local governments stepping forward to experiment with platforms are large cities that are also more likely to interact with residents using a higher number of offline methods, and to say that their local government values citizen empowerment as a goal.
Although some research has explored the use of online participatory platforms, categorizing their features and presenting examples, there is little prior evidence on the extent to which local governments are using them, or on the characteristics of early adopters of these emerging technologies for civic engagement. The survey data allowed us to gauge the extent of adoption and how these fit into a more general context for local civic engagement and innovation. Online engagement reflects patterns of participation in communities more generally, according to our findings here, and platforms should be viewed as one of multiple venues created for interactions with citizens by the most participatory local governments, especially in large cities. This raises interesting questions about whether these platforms will spread more generally in the future, in smaller communities or where there has been less extensive experience with other forms of citizen participation.
We would be interested in hearing from local governments or researchers on this blog about their experiences using these platforms. Do you have insights or stories to share?
Kersting, Norbert. 2012. “Online Participation: From ‘Invited’ Spaces to ‘Invented’ Spaces.” International Journal of Electronic Governance 6 (4): 270-280.
Seongkyung Cho is a doctoral candidate in Public Administration and Policy at Arizona State University. Cho’s research interests lie in the areas of housing policy, urban inequality, and urban governance. Her work focuses primarily on low-income households, public and affordable housing, actors in housing policy (e.g., landlords, tenants, realtors, developers), technology use in the public sector, and mixed methods approaches.
Karen Mossberger is a professor in the School of Public Affairs in the College of Public Service and Community Solutions at Arizona State University and the director of the new Center on Technology, Data and Society. Her research interests include local governance, urban policy, digital inequality, evaluation of broadband programs and digital government.
David Swindell is the director of the Center for Urban Innovation and an associate professor in the School of Public Affairs at Arizona State University. His work focuses on community and economic development, especially public financing of sports facilities, collaborative arrangements for service delivery, and citizen satisfaction and performance measurement standards in public management and decision making.
J. David Selby is a doctoral candidate in the School of Public Affairs at Arizona State University, pursuing a Ph.D. in public policy and public administration. He conducts research on state and local government, focusing specifically on economic development, innovation and the STEM workforce. Previously, he worked with the Virginia governor’s office to develop open-data policies for the state.