Better governance through Direct engagement: Get the gist on using IT to consult citizenry


Recent advances in technology have dramatically transformed—and will continue to transform—the relationship between individuals and organizations. Information and communication technologies (ICT), in particular, are increasingly facilitating the ability of individuals to have dialogues with organizations across all sectors (i.e. private companies, government agencies, NGOs, civil society organizations). The public sector in several nations is exploring the adoption of ICT for e-government that would enable the direct engagement of its citizens.

The public sector has been slow to adopt these new tools, but some agencies have experienced a modicum of success. One example is The US Center for Disease Control (CDC) who brought emergency preparedness to a mainstream audience with a blog post about preparing for a zombie apocalypseFootnote 1.

Using zombies as a metaphor paid off with a massive viral campaign. Overnight their Twitter followers jumped from 12,000 to 1.2 millionFootnote 2, and the CDC website enjoyed so much attention that it crashed. That interest began to wane perhaps because the readers saw the underlying intentions of the post (i.e. alerting the public to the importance of emergency preparations). Whether readers actually prepared for hurricanes and other realistic emergencies as the author encouraged is uncertain, but the blog post spread the message of emergency preparation to more people than they had reached with previous campaigns.

More than informing the public, internet tools could initiate a dialogue between governments and individuals. One example is online voting which multiple organizations are exploring. Online voting is a popular topic in the United Kingdom (UK) especially since the UK’s Labour Party used it for the internal election of the National Executive Committee in 2014. The goal of WebRoots DemocracyFootnote 3 is to bring online voting to General Elections in the UK by 2020, and they estimate that online voting could boost overall turnout to 79% with up to an extra 9 million votersFootnote 4 while reducing the costs of General Elections by £12.8 million.

Online voting could be just the beginning. In the private sector, dialogue between organizations and individuals through social media and other online platforms has become a means of gathering feedback on products, services, policies, and programs. This direct feedback allows for real time assessments of what’s working and not working: what needs acceleration and expansion, what needs to be changed, and what needs to be completely discontinued.

In the public space, NYC311Footnote 5 is a great example. New York City residents can call 311 for non-emergency government services, but with more than 100,000 followers, NYC311 answers their Twitter account regularly to directly address citizen complaints about everything from graffiti to after hour city construction noise. NYC311’s Twitter account also requests that citizens provide feedback on their experiences in a convenient manner and a time that suits them. This direct contact with constituents and consumers benefits organizations by providing a more granular understanding of the individuals they serve and allowing the tailoring of offerings to more closely match individuals’ unique characteristics.

Engagement with individuals is also increasingly serving as a new pipeline for innovation. Private organizations are employing social media and other online platforms to communicate with the public—to find out what their stakeholders want and need, to gauge the market for new offerings, and to solicit and assess new ideas for products, services, and programs.

Given the value of these interactions, many organizations no longer wait for individuals to reach out to them. Instead, they are initiating contact and outreach efforts, and offering new and innovative platforms that invite individuals to share their ideas and experiences. A prime example from the public sector is the US President’s SAVE AwardFootnote 6 that ran from 2009 to 2013 to directly request suggestions from government employees. The annual awards generated tens of thousands of cost cutting ideas that are still being explored and adopted.

As citizen expectations rise, especially from the younger generations who do not remember a time before the internet, government entities will need to more seriously appraise their options for direct engagement. Citizens are growing accustomed to the manner in which private corporations are engaging with them even if this means a loss in privacy. If public organizations cannot engage in a similar manner albeit one that more highly protects privacy and anonymity, they risk losing the interest and even the support of their constituents who may come to view the methods of the public sector as antiquated. Citizens may feel increasingly disconnected from their own government, and that feeling could lead to dissatisfaction with the government as a whole.

Nonetheless, the benefits outweigh these concerns. At the very least, direct engagement will enable the contribution of citizens who ordinarily would not or even could not participate in elections and other public events. However, the ideal is that ICT could lead to a purer democracy through direct engagement with increased rates of participation and satisfaction.

So far, the internet initiatives of government entities around the world have been slow and experimental. Few nations have embraced the idea that ICT could open government more fully to the people. So, the public sector will need to follow the lead of the private sector to innovate their own balance of existing engagement models and regulatory demands.