Building the Shared City: How Can We Engage Citizens

I have been invited to participate in a seminar of The City Factory ( this August in Amsterdam. The theme for the seminar is: Building the shared city: how can we engage citizens?” The seminars are described as: “Every year, The City Factory organizes a seminar on a specific theme that brings together some sixty people (including academics, elected officials, functionaries, business leaders, representative members of civil society, and VINCI Group executives) to discuss and share viewpoints on a set subject. This seminar, which has an international scope, is held in a European capital

The big questions they are considering are: what is the economy of engagement? Is there a cost to non-engagement? How can we reconcile the personal interests of political actors, private actors and citizens? How can benefits be maximized for each player? How did the United States manage to combine economic efficiency with citizen participation in major city projects?

This week, I have a conference call with the head of The City Factory to discuss my preliminary answer to the following specific draft questions:

1. The need for new political technologies: a new relationship between public institutions and citizens?

2. How are the new technologies transforming the way in which information and opinion are disseminated?

3. How can the new technologies serve, rather than harm, democracy?

4. How can we prevent the transparency and openness of web-based participatory tools damaging the confidentiality of projects?

Here are my preliminary preliminary (no, that is not an accidental repetition) answers (which will later be condensed into a concise 15-minute set of remarks):

The need for new political technologies: a new relationship between public institutions and citizens?

The question implies that a transformed relationship between public institutions and citizens started to emerge prior to the development and use of emergent social technologies. In the United States, we know that citizen trust in government, at all levels of government, has been low and getting lower for some time. The recent economic turmoil and small government activism by groups such as the Tea Party have added to not only lack of trust but active distrust of government. In a study I conducted in a local Florida community, I was confronted with citizens who openly questioned the trustworthiness of local elected officials . . . for a government that was not yet created (see

At the same time, we have seen emerge over the past two to three decades sustainable forms of urban governance that held the citizen at the center. A number of U.S. based prominent and emergent scholars have examined this phenomenon, including Terry Cooper, John Clayton Thomas, Tina Nabatchi, Juliet Musso, and others. Neighborhood based governance in urban environments has emerged as a potentially powerful antidote to citizen distrust. The potential was recognized by Milton Kotler in his 1969 book, Neighborhood Government: The Local Foundations of Political Life. More recently, research in cities like Los Angeles (see have shown both a desire by urban residents for more direct involvement in governance as well as the opportunities for cities to include citizens through neighborhood councils, participatory budgeting, and facilitated collaboration between citizens and city agency officials.

And so, we might accept the unstated premise of the question: the relationship between public institutions and citizens has been changing, or at least has been dynamic. The changes have been both towards greater disconnection as well as enhanced partnership. Cities around the United States are widely different in their political culture and in their response to these dual dynamics; the same lack of cohesive response is evident at state and federal levels of government (see, including my chapter on the orientation of U.S. presidential administrations towards citizens).

As we look to new and emergent technologies, it is imperative that we address both conditions: increasing lack of trust and in some cases distrust between citizen and government, and desire of citizens for a more active role in governance. I would not suggest we “need” the new technologies, as they are not a “revolutionary” panacea as some writers of e-government have suggested, but they can certainly be helpful.

How are the new technologies transforming the way in which information and opinion are disseminated?

This is a complicated question, as there is not a single answer. Instead, we see variation across city governments in the United States, and we see variation across citizens based on demographics. A summary statement might be: Some urban governments are proving particularly adept at using new technologies to engage with citizens, whereas others are merely replicating practices developed based on older technologies. Some citizens are taking advantage of the plethora of opportunities to learn about and engage with governments; others are not doing so. Some of the discussion that follows is based on an essay I wrote for a white paper published by the Alliance for Innovation at Arizona State University (see

According to a survey by the Pew Research Center (see, nearly one-third of online adults use digital tools (i.e. social media and networks) to get information from government agencies or officials. Among the survey’s headline findings:

• College graduates are most likely to follow a government agency on a social networking site, read a government blog, receive email alerts from government agencies, receive text messages from government agencies, watch videos on government websites, and follow a government agency on Twitter

• High-income Americans are most likely to watch videos on government websites; mid- to high-income Americans are more likely than lower income internet users to use social media and networking tools to learn from or about government agencies or officials

• Whites, blacks, and Latinos are equally likely to get government information using digital technologies

The survey also found that nearly one quarter of internet users are members of the “government participatory class.” These are individuals who engage in technology-enabled discourse about or with government agencies (e.g. through blogs, email, or Facebook). Among these individuals, the largest proportion (12%) has joined a group that tries to influence government policy, and 11% have posted comments online about a government policy or issue. Fewer have participated in an online town hall meeting (3%), posted comments on a government blog (2%), or posted comments on a government social networking site fan page (1%). Other findings in this area include:

 • Whites are much more likely than blacks or Latinos to be online government participators.

• Information and transactions are viewed as more important government offering than outreach using social media. Specifically, more internet users felt it was very important for government to provide general information, allow citizens to contact government officials, and allow citizens to complete transactions or tasks, than to post information and alerts on networking sites like Facebook or Twitter.

• The wealthy and better educated were more interested in receiving information and completing transactions than the less wealthy and educated (though more than 50% of both groups desired information and transaction opportunities).

• African Americans, Latinos, and whites were all roughly equally likely to desire information and opportunities to complete transactions on government websites. African Americans and Latinos were much more likely than whites to desire government to post information and alerts on social networking sites.

These data suggest that citizens are interested in receiving information from government through the internet, and they will access information through web-based media, such as video sharing. However, the vast majority of internet users are not currently using web-based tools to receive information, and even fewer are using these tools to engage in discourse with or about government. There also are significant divisions among internet users based on race/ethnicity, income, and education level. Whites, better educated, and higher income internet users are more likely to turn to the web and social media for government information, but, interestingly, African

Americans and Latinos are more likely to desire government agencies and officials to post information where they socialize, such as on Facebook or Twitter.

On the government side, we find some transformational potentials for the use of social media tools, such as wiki (see Beth Noveck’s work at and Twitter (see Ines Mergel’s work at However, we also find studies showing that information sharing and transparency become easier, but the technologies themselves are not used for much beyond simple unidirectional information sharing. See the work of Laura Hand and Brandon Ching (see and Lori Brainard and Teresa Derrick-Mills (see Overall, on the government side, we see potential for transforming how information is shared but the potential is not yet realized. This issue is further discussed in the next question.

How can the new technologies serve, rather than harm, democracy?

New technologies have transformational potential. This is not a new notion, as dating back to the early 1980s, Bruce Gates asked in Public Administration Review whether microcomputers will make us better citizens? New technologies bring new hope and new inspiration to democratic theorists and advocates: they present an opportunity to share information more efficiently, promote broader and deeper education across communities, enable greater transparency, facilitate transactions, and permit more active participation by citizens with their governments at potentially lower costs to the citizens.

Just as new technologies can bring new hope and inspiration and lead to enhanced democracy, they can just as easily lead to unintended harmful consequences if not implemented strategically or thoughtfully. Below I briefly discuss some of the research and writing on how technologies can both serve and, if not strategic, potentially harm democracy.

There are “best practices” worth highlighting. These are practices that facilitate or at least provide opportunity for meaningful citizenship action. The first involves an act of making citizenship easy and meaningful. Citizens do not have to exert much effort, but government needs to be prepared to respond. Applying popular social technologies like the iPhone and other handheld devices, citizens of Los Angeles are now able to snap photographs of a public problem (e.g. graffiti, pothole, overgrown tree, etc.), send it to city government, and the problem will be addressed. Geographic location is submitted using the phone’s GPS, relieving citizens of the barrier of knowing their precise location. City Councilman, Eric Garcetti, was quoted in a press release about this program: “In government, you can’t wait for people to come to you—you need to give residents the tools to empower themselves in the most convenient way.”

Another example comes from the City of Manor, Texas, population 5,800. Unlike the Los Angeles example, citizens in Manor are asked to contribute ideas for improving city services. According Governing writer, Steve Towns, the Manor Labs project works in the following way:“Citizens go to a Web site,, to submit proposals and vote ideas up or down. Participants earn 5,000 points for submitting an idea, 150 for commenting and 300,000 if the city implements their idea. Points, known as innobucks, can be spent on police ride-alongs, meals donated by local restaurants or a change to serve as mayor for a day. City officials evaluate the suggestions, and every decision is made in plain view on the site.”

Another example is from a study conducted by me and Kimberly Nelson from Northern Illinois University. In a study of city government use of social media for civic engagement, we found generally that cities were using social tools in a unidirectional manner, across form of government and city population size. There were a couple of notable exceptions. One was the City of Tampa (Florida) which maintains a Facebook page where city officials both post information and engage is discourse with citizens who post in response. The image below provides an example of this form of interaction.

However, there are observed practices that may be harmful to democracy as well. These practices are indicative of what I have called “cost of democratization” (see In other words, particularly in the use of social media tools, if they are not designed for use and implemented strategically, it may lead citizens to become less trustful and engaged than more trustful and engaged. Entering a social media site expecting an opportunity to engage in open transparent discourse and finding only unidirectional information sharing may discourage citizens from participating.

For cities that open themselves for participation, strategic design is important to ensure participatory objectives are met. Failing this, the quality of participation may be lower than desired, as may the quantity of participation. This is empirically verified in a study I conducted with XiaoHu Wang from the City University of Hong Kong (see In this study, we compared the quantity and quality of citizen participation in two online participation mechanisms in a single local government case; we found that when the threshold for citizens to participate was low, the quantity of participation was greater but the quality suffered significantly; the reverse was true when the threshold for citizens was higher.

Ultimately, I suggest that emergent technologies can serve democracy but only through strategic design and implementation. The following design principles I find to be useful:

First, use technology, don’t force technology. This means that third party services (like Facebook, Wiki, and YouTube), are designed for specific purposes. They have limitations. They cannot be the panacea for all that is troublesome in government-citizen relations. Facebook is best suited for sharing information; dialogue  and deliberation may be  better conducted using tools like the Manor Labs project in Manor, Texas. Twitter is an exceptional tool for mobilizing masses of people quickly or making emergency announcements; it is not a tool for dialogue. When designing a public engagement process, the technology tool should be selected carefully understanding its limitations.

Second, respect privacy but encourage transparency. Though social media and networking tools make each of us the centers of universe, some if not most citizens are not interested in sharing much about their “home self” or “personal self.” Theories of deliberative democracy suggest transparency is desirable, as it allows for the development of empathy and mutual understanding. As much as this is a theoretical desire, it is not the dominant cultural norm in the United States. One of the most important questions, though, is whether to allow citizens to be anonymous in social networking and media environments. Should citizens at least be required to reveal their name and possibly address, as they would be expected to in many public hearing settings? Informal observation of anonymous blogs and other tools suggests anonymity may harm civility, thus preventing full benefits of dialogue and discourse from being achieved. This is an area for more research to be conducted;  in practice, officials should be aware of the potential tradeoff between full privacy and civility.

Third, promote civility and reduce timidity. Building on the last point, technology and citizen input can be designed and facilitated to mitigate against name calling or otherwise unsupportive communication. The Manor Labs example is a good one, in which citizens are incentivized through a point and reward system to offer ideas and commentary that is supportive and developmental. The point system additionally encouraged a higher quantity of participation.

Fourth, help citizens to best use available technologies, but be open to learn about the technologies. Chances are, some citizens will be more technologically-aware and able than administrators and/or elected officials. Government officials should be aware of their limitations, as perhaps the worst outcome might be to have an official attempt but fail to employ a technology correctly or without demonstrated competence, thus leading to costs of democratization. At the same time, officials need to have the skills necessary to access, interpret, and synthesize mostly text feedback presented to them by citizen in social networking or media environments.

Last, facilitate learning through social engagement and interaction. Local government can adopt a role as educator of citizens, helping to give citizens the capacity they need to successfully engage in the decision-making process. For example, in a study on citizen engagement in regulatory decision making I conducted (see discussion of the study at, citizens were not well equipped to influence decision-making, and yet hundreds of thousands of these citizens showed up. Such an output can be damaging to decision making and to citizen trust in government. Governments can use social networking and media technologies to inform and educate about how government works. They may find some citizens willing to listen and some who will reject the government’s message. Over time, the efforts may pay dividends in the form of more active and effective engaged citizens.

How can we prevent the transparency and openness of web-based participatory tools damaging the confidentiality of projects?

Transparency and openness are core features of democratic governance. As governments put more information online through social media or otherwise, citizens may come to expect easy access to all information. However, as we know in urban and regional planning and in other potentially sensitive policy discussions, sometimes transparency might be harmful to the future of success of projects. For instance, I use a case in teaching (see in which a city manager must choose whether to reveal certain information about a proposed new development to the citizenry. Complicating the case is the fact that if information is revealed, it may influence the outcome of an election scheduled within a couple weeks time. This is an ethical dilemma that might anger citizens who demand transparency in all cases. There is another example of transparency in a video regarding a local school district and its decision to keep a meeting closed to all stakeholders, including media, except parents (see

The most important response from city governments is to be open about process with citizens. As I found in research on public participation in city and county land use planning (in a paper presented at a conference on democracy in Canada, 2008), citizens are often confounded by process. If they do not understand the process and how their voice fits into the process, they are more likely to be distrustful and less likely to participate when the right time comes. Likewise, the central recommendation from my research on public participation in the Obama administration (see was for government to establish unambiguous expectations for citizens. Failure to do so can lead to citizens either participating in democratic process with inflated expectations regarding their ability to affect an outcome (thus leading to what I call a democracy bubble subject to burst), or they will have more pessimistic expectations, thus preventing their participation at all. If a project must remain confidential, it is the obligation of government to explain why. Otherwise, citizens will be distrustful and suspicious of intent . . . leading back to the first question and the need to use technologies to both combat distrust and develop participatory partnerships between governments and their people.

Published by Prof. dr. Thomas Bryer

Dr. Thomas Bryer is professor in the School of Public Administration at the University of Central Florida, Fulbright Scholar and Specialist, Professor at Kaunas University of Technology (Lithuania) and Visiting Professor Edge Hill University (United Kingdom).

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