Citizens know their own needs best and should not be alienated from policies that will profoundly shape their communities.

Yet this is a challenging process. Emails and online consultation forms are often lost in a sea of red tape. Citizens become frustrated when governments fail to respond to pressing issues in a timely manner.

“There is a lot of political unrest and criticism of the establishment wherever you are in the world. People are asking questions,” says Nimo Naamani, Chief Technology Officer of Horizon State, which works with governments across the world on voting and community empowerment.

However, this does not need to be the status quo. Here are some ways governments can improve citizen engagement and already are.

Increasing speed and frequency of feedback

Governments are introducing platforms that allow citizens to provide ideas and feedback more quickly and frequently, to escape the trappings of bureaucratic red tape.

Last year, South Australia launched YourSay, an online consultation hub where citizens can take part in online discussions and vote in polls to influence policy decisions. By December 2017, more than 10% of South Australia’s population had joined this initiative to share their opinions. Citizens also vote to decide how to allocate public funding of $40 million for neighbourhood improvement projects.

Through these platforms, citizens can participate in frequent discussions with government officials and one another on important policies. By allowing citizens to deliberate with policy-makers in real-time, governments can also prevent national elections from simply becoming a popularity race.

“Rather than waiting for a few years to vote on a party or a personality, or to create policies far further down the track, you can actually engage individuals on matters that affect their community as events happen in real time,” says Naamani.

Providing better experiences for citizens

Poor design of services for public input also hamper citizens from participating fully in policy discussions. “Good design underpins good outcomes”, adds Naamani.

Smartphones and apps have greatly improved citizens’ experience in participating in government. For instance, Jakarta’s Qlue app allows citizens to report problems to the city government. The city then uses data from these complaints to prioritise funding and allocate resources to tackle issues like traffic congestion and flooding.

More recently, artificial Intelligence (AI) is improving users’ experience of engagement platforms. For instance, the Taiwanese government uses an AI tool which allows thousands of people, including policymakers, users and academics, to discuss policies virtually.

It brings people voting on similar ideas together until they can come to a consensus, which the government then looks to implement. It also visualises peoples’ opinions and votes, allowing officials to better understand citizens’ sentiment.

Taiwan also plans to use virtual and mixed reality to engage citizens in urban planning. It must be “enjoyable to participate in the deliberative process – like watching and acting in a 3D IMAX movie”, says Audrey Tang, Taiwan’s digital minister, in her blog post.

Reducing costs to taxpayers

These initiatives don’t have to burn a hole in governments’ pockets either.

Blockchain, a distributed record keeping platform, is a cheaper alternative to traditional feedback avenues, such as call centres which require manpower and operating costs. Censuses can cost up to tens of millions in taxpayer dollars while requiring years to collect data, but new methods like blockchain can achieve the same at ten times the speed and at “a fraction of the cost”, according to Horizon State’s CEO Oren Alazraki.

For instance, Moscow uses a blockchain-based platform to allow citizens to discuss and vote on referendums for public services. Since 2014, the scheme has facilitated over 3,500 polls on issues such as naming new metro trains.

Improving quality of democratic outcomes

Most importantly, governments can improve the quality of democratic outcomes and dialogue, says Naamani from Horizon State.

This approach can particularly help developing countries leapfrog, he adds. In the coming months, Horizon State plans to trial its Blockchain-based community voting platform in a small city and a large province, both in the Asia Pacific.

It has already partnered with Indonesian religious organisation Nahdlatul Ulama (NU). The vision is to give over 96 million members of NU an online platform to “openly and safely” express their opinions to make collective decisions on public services. This is helping people make “collaborative and collective decisions” through “more frequent and meaningful dialogue”, Naamani says.

As citizens become more empowered to have a say in their communities, a vibrant culture of citizen engagement can soon become the new norm in countries across the world.

Image by Ministério da Indústria, Comércio Exterior e ServiçosCC BY 2.0