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How Technology Helps Community Participation in Local Government

3Di Systems | July 27, 2023

3 Minute Read

Community participation is a cornerstone of effective city administration, fostering a sense of ownership and involvement among residents. However, not even community participation is immune to politics: local power structures can make engagement more complex, and lead to a lack of representation or involvement by the community.

While it’s generally difficult for an individual to resolve these issues, some things are more addressable, such as information disparity: making sure residents are informed, and able to easily contact their government.

But before we elaborate on how communications technology can give residents the means to participate more effectively in their communities, let’s make sure we understand what participation often looks like.

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Unpacking the Forms of Participation

Policy researcher Sarah White identifies four forms of participation: nominal, instrumental, representative, and transformative. Each form serves different functions and is perceived differently by those “at the top” (more powerful) and “at the grassroots” (less powerful).

  • Nominal participation often serves as a display of involvement without any real influence from the grassroots. For example, a city might invite residents to a town hall meeting to discuss a new park, but the plans for the park are already finalized.
  • Instrumental participation involves using the skills and knowledge of community members to achieve a specific goal. For instance, a city might involve local artists in designing a mural for a community center.
  • Representative participation gives community members a voice in decision-making and implementation processes. In this case, a city might form a committee of residents to provide input on a new housing policy.
  • Transformative participation leads to the empowerment of those involved and can alter structures and institutions that cause marginalization and exclusion. For example, a city could involve marginalized communities in the planning and execution of social programs, leading to their increased representation and influence in local governance.

Solving problematic power structures isn’t something we can solve overnight or address with a single article or book. These are complex, nuanced issues that are often unique to each city. So what steps can local governments take to help democratize community participation?

While these complexities present challenges, making a government more accessible and transparent is a powerful start. One of the most effective ways to do this, and to foster greater community participation is through the strategic use of communication technology.

How modern communications technology can facilitate more equitable participation

Modern communication solutions can play a crucial role in fostering more equitable and transformational participation. Consider how this can level the playing field, by providing better access to information for every stage of government interaction:

Enhancing government accessibility and reach

Omnichannel communication platforms allow for the automation of notifications and alerts through various channels like email, SMS, social media, and app push notifications. This ensures that all community members, regardless of their preferred communication method, are kept informed and involved. Residents can receive updates about local events or policy changes through their preferred channel, increasing their engagement and participation.

Similarly, personalized mobile apps and web portals can significantly improve access for both staff and the public. These platforms, designed for ease of use, efficiency, and security, can make it easier for residents to access information, submit requests, and participate in local decision-making. For example, a mobile app could allow residents to stay informed on a local infrastructure project, fostering a sense of direct involvement and empowerment.

Facilitating two-way communication

Communication technologies can also foster two-way communication between city administrators and residents. Platforms like online forums, social media, or dedicated city apps can provide spaces for residents to voice their opinions, ask questions, and provide feedback. This interactive communication can lead to higher levels of instrumental and representative participation, as well as help the government make better decisions to benefit the community.

Increased personalization for residents

Customer relationship management (CRM) systems can be a game-changer for community participation. By maintaining comprehensive contact information and managing campaigns effectively, city administrators can engage residents more efficiently.

For example, a CRM could help track residents' past interactions with the city, allowing for more personalized and relevant communications — and reducing the hassle of filling out forms for information they’ve already provided in the past. This can lead to increased involvement and a sense of being heard, fostering transformative participation.

Greater transparency of government processes

Case management solutions can streamline the handling of requests, complaints, and other cases. By eliminating paperwork and increasing visibility through customer portals (like in a Virtual City Hall), these tools can make the process more transparent and accessible to residents. For instance, a resident could easily submit a complaint about a local issue online and track its resolution in real time, enhancing their sense of participation and influence.

Supporting Inclusivity with Multi-Language Support

Inclusivity is a key aspect of equitable participation. By offering multi-language support in communications, apps, and portals, you can ensure that all community members, regardless of their primary language, can participate fully. For instance, a resident who speaks Spanish as their first language could access city communications and services in Spanish, removing a language barrier that might otherwise hurt their ability to get involved in their community.

Finding the right solutions

While it’s a major challenge to reach any ideal level of community participation, the strategic use of communication technology can significantly enhance accessibility, inclusivity, and transparency. This can lead to more equitable and effective participation.

To learn more about how to leverage technology for better community engagement, check out our guide to finding the right citizen engagement software.


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