“Citizens are mayors” – that’s Mayor Park Wan Soon’s slogan, says Kim Chang-beom, the Ambassador for International Relations for the Seoul Metropolitan Government.

The Mayor has pushed for open dialogues with citizens and prioritised citizens’ needs. It’s hard to measure intangible outcomes from such an approach, but “I think the more important thing is that people are feeling connected with the city administration”, and that inculcates a “sense of solidarity”, Kim says.

GovInsider caught up with Seoul’s ambassador to discuss how the city is engaging its citizens for policy reforms and planning, and the challenges it faces in doing so.

Policy hackathons

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The city holds “policy hackathons” on specific needs of citizens or problems faced by a district. From the insights gained, the administration drafts policies that are relevant to the issues faced.

These have been used to address unemployment woes by young graduates in the city, Kim says, where the problem is “very acute”. Residents shared the difficulties of job searches, their working conditions, and the problem of “job-mismatch between the educational background and career requirements”.

Seoul invites NGOs to organise such events, but bears the full cost of the events, he adds.

Participatory budgeting

The city’s 25 local boroughs have smaller budgets, so they have to make sure that these are spent on the right areas.

Citizens can propose community projects which are subject to reviews by the budgeting committee – also comprising of citizens – to ensure that costs are reflected in the city budget. After the review, a participatory budget meeting will be held for citizens to vote on the budget.

The council is inclusive in its reach, and wants to “embrace the voices of students and the elderly”, Kim says. In 2014, the council endorsed 202 projects out of the 223 proposed, with a budget worth 44.8 billion KRW (US$39 million) , compared to an initial amount of 50.3 billion KRW (US$44 million).

The budgeting system was adopted in 2012, and since then citizens’ rate of participation in the budgeting committee has increased by 80%.

Mobile voting

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The city is also using an app to engage its citizens in urban planning. The mVoting app gathers people’s feedback on a particular policy, infrastructure or event that the city is working on, and incorporates their preferences in the planning.

The city government sets up polls to gather citizen votes. For example, “when the city is building a small crossroad, city dwellers can express their favourite place, or the most appropriate location where the crossroad should be built”, Kim says.

Citizens are also called on to give feedback on their favourite food restaurant and k-pop bands to perform in community events, he adds.

So far, there has been “about 4,000 initiatives” that the city government has set up as polls, and from those, it has developed 121 policy initiatives suggested by the citizens, Kim says.

However, the government believes that some projects are more relevant to citizens than others. “We are not putting all the initiatives and policies on mVoting”, he says. To strike a balance, the council sets out “many other channels of communications, both online and offline” to reach a larger demographic, Kim points out.

Smart complaints

The city has also set up an app for residents to file complaints on public facilities in real time.

Users can upload snapshots of damaged infrastructure, such as sunken potholes in roads and faulty road blocks, with their locations tagged, Kim says.

The complaints are directed to Seoul city’s central call centre, where “it will be registered and filed, then disseminated to relevant departments”. Citizens are then alerted when further actions are taken, he adds.

Voices of the unconnected

Korea is known as the country with the fastest internet speed, but not every citizen is connected to the internet. The Seoul administration faces a challenge to “include those who are not technologically connected” and “reflect those voices”, Kim says. The elderly, he points out, “are not fully connected with these smart applications”.

The city engages the older generation through community centres and mobile visits. They can file complaint reports at the community centre; civil servants also conduct site visits to those who “are not fully connected with city services”, he explains.

“There are so many things happening in the city at the same time”, Kim says, so a struggle for his team is to prioritise suggestions and complaints. The challenge lies in pooling and organising massive troves of data, and incorporating them in policies, he says.

Simple repair works are “easy”, but “much greater and bigger suggestions” like those related to policy changes takes a longer time, he says.

The citizens of Seoul function like a heart, pumping blood for sustenance to support the city’s life. They are, after all, the pulse of the city.

Image from ambassador Kim Chang-beom’s Facebook page