In order for governments to be open, responsive, and engaging, community members must feel they are active participants in building government, and that their participation can influence decisions about issues that impact them.

Technology can be a powerful tool for community engagement. It can help local government expand their reach to a broad cross-section of the community (and clearly see who is being left out). It can help people understand the issues at hand, encourage actions, and demonstrate how those actions are creating positive outcomes.

Code for America has worked with local governments across the country and we've tested five key elements of effective 21st century community engagement:

  1. Reach: Define the constituency you're trying to reach, with an emphasis on identifying those whose voices aren’t already represented.
  2. Information: Make relevant information easy to find and understand, spoken in a clear, simple, and authentic voice.
  3. Channels: Communicate via online and offline channels. Meet people where they are.
  4. Productive Actions: Identify clear, concrete and meaningful actions that the community can take to reach their desired outcomes.
  5. Feedback Loops: Followup with your community to show how their actions have made a difference.

When the community sees their actions contributing to positive outcomes for all people, we should see an increase in the number of people using their hands (and not just their voices) to help, and stronger relationships form between community and government.

Practice community engagement

Guide: How to be responsive and engage with your community

  • Expand your reach: An effective engagement strategy reaches constituents who don’t usually take part in public feedback. It pays attention to the people and communities who will be most affected by the policies and processes that result. This allows you to get a fuller understanding of what your community needs, and create programs and policies that meet those needs.
  • Provide relevant and useful information: Once you have identified the people you want to reach, you need them to understand the issue you’re seeking input on and how they can participate. The web is increasingly the primary place people expect to find information, take action, and communicate with government.
  • Collect community input through a variety of channels: Many people don’t take part in traditional public meetings because they are held in spaces or at times that aren’t convenient or welcoming. To invite participation from everyone, you should use a variety of spaces and channels to meet people where they are. All forums, whether online or offline, should be accessible, safe, and welcoming.
  • Encourage productive actions: Make it easy for residents to usefully and meaningfully contribute to the city's work. Prioritize clear and specific requests. Make sure what you are asking people to do will actually add value to your work. Don’t waste their time by asking for vague feedback that won’t get used or to attend a meeting that doesn’t have a clear purpose.
  • Create useful feedback loops: Your community needs to know that their feedback was valued and what the result was of their participation. By creating useful feedback loops, you can build meaningful, trusting relationships with residents.

Read the complete guide on community engagement.

Tools

  • Tool: CityVoice: A place-based call-in system to collect community feedback on places, like vacant properties or public parks, using the the telephone.
  • Tool: Textizen: A survey tool that uses text messaging to collect feedback about key issues.
  • Tool: MuniciPal: MuniciPal surfaces upcoming public decisions based on geography, and allows residents to give feedback to their local representatives.

Watch

Further reading