Tools for citizen participation and engagement

Talking with clients and others in government we’ve discovered a lot of confusion about the distinction between the different types of citizen engagement tools. With an ever increasing demand for transparency and new forms of citizen outreach, cities are looking at many ways to engage and inform their residents and there are many tools that can help. If you are in the process of seeking a technology solution, it’s valuable to understand the differences in what these tools can do.

1. Virtual town hall & survey platforms

Probably the best known are the online town hall civic engagement ones. Bang the Table, Citizen Lab, Idea Scale, MetroQuest and many others fill a crowded market for collecting quality input from citizens on large projects. These tools are great for engaging people for a new comprehensive plan or a large infrastructure project. They are staff intensive and useful for big projects but impractical for the everyday workload.

2. Data tracking & information sharing

Tools like CivicPlus and MySidewalk offer governments the opportunity for an online 311 service. These tools allow the public to ask general questions and report issues. This is a very useful service for governments to provide, but is not meant to allow for review and comment on current projects or Council actions.

3. Process and permitting tools

There is a huge market for moving the permitting application process online. Dozens of companies like OpenCounter, Citizenserve, and MyGovernmentOnline automate the business of the permit counter, putting both application and process information online. This is a growing business as more and more governments realize the need for automated permit services, but as with the other tools this is separate and distinct from citizen engagement and online hearings.

4. Public hearings

People Speak started because none of the existing tools allowed cities to conduct the business of public hearings online. Public hearings are traditionally and continue to be in-person events; very few governments have begun to use technology to change participation in public hearings. People Speak is solely focused on helping public hearings evolve to meet the demands of the future generations (read our manifesto here).