Citizen engagement: a pathway for government reform

Chat bubbles. Shutterstock image.

I recently participated in a citizen engagement roundtable with leaders from a variety of agencies, moderated by FCW, as part of a broader set of panels on citizen engagement (see FCW's summary here).

Among the many topics addressed by the innovative leaders at the table was a question of definition: What is citizen engagement? How does this concept relate to citizen services, digital transformation, and similar terms used to describe how government is modernizing the ways in which it interacts with citizens?

Citizens in the United States and worldwide have grown accustomed to engaging with private companies in an interactive and personalized manner -- they increasingly expect the same of their engagement with government agencies. Citizens are looking to work with government on how to approach problems, develop policies and programs and receive services, create collaborative online and in-person relationships, and employ new modes of direct interaction -- whether via social media, chat rooms or tech-inspired meet-ups.

Implemented effectively, digital technologies can provide channels that bring citizens and governments closer together to “co-create” programs. Such opportunities leverage citizen service improvements like enhanced service delivery and better customer experience based on citizen-centric design -- approaches that enable self-service, real-time assistance, and personalized transactions.

Building on this digital foundation, new cognitive technologies can bring citizens into virtual rooms in which laws and regulations are drafted, allowing government to benefit from the wisdom of the crowd and to “narrowcast” with key experts in developing regulatory content. This can change the policy game from one in which government posts documents drafted behind closed doors and receives comments that are reviewed one-by-one, to one in which the affected public and private sector parties create transparent and collaborative content. That, in turn, can raise the bar for impact from programs such as E-Rulemaking (, and other programs identified throughout the roundtable’s insightful discussion.

Further, these relationships can redefine the manner in which citizens engage with each other and with government in designing services. For example, local communities can “co-produce” services such as street repair or neighborhood watches collectively, rather than waiting for public services where growing budget constraints can limit access by large numbers of citizens in a reasonable time frame.

Emerging technologies such as blockchain enable citizens to develop new and secure pathways of exchanging data, both directly and with governments. And groups of developers can use open source platforms to design public services, just as they increasingly do in designing commercial applications.

Even as citizens and governments interact in new ways, the tenets of effective government continue to guide how agencies can succeed. Citizens want transparency, security and speed -- expectations that challenge agencies to identify not just new technologies, but new processes and ways of working. Agencies continue to grow formal processes for innovation, establishing chief innovation, chief technology, and chief digital offices; one challenge will be how to scale innovation from these lead offices to reach across the enterprise, and how to be open and agile with respect to incorporating new ideas while still protecting citizen data.

Government organizations cannot deliver on their missions without engaging citizens. Agencies must consider how to institutionalize citizen interaction, identifying barriers to remove and opportunities to draw on. As the 21st century marches on, public-private sector leaders no doubt will continue to evolve in leveraging technology to improve how citizens live, work and learn -- together, and with their government.

Center Innovation Fellow Darcie Piechowski contributed to this post

About the Author

Dan Chenok is executive director of the IBM Center for the Business of Government.

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Reader comments

Thu, Apr 20, 2017 Ranjeeth Thunga Hyderabad, India

I remember walking into the Seattle Homeland Security Office a few years ago wanting to share some valuable insights. I expected a good conversation and meaningful exchange of information...but basically I was told everyone was too busy and just write a letter and maybe I'd get a response in a few months...but not to expect one. If this was a private person or company, that's one thing. But if this was my government's response to my desire to help, then something is deeply wrong. We tend to so often fall into the mindset that the government is our authority, where in fact we as citizens are the authority and the government works for us. I think as our world is reshaped by technology, we can build into our processes an actual cooperative relationship between citizen and government. There are many barriers in place that thwart our communication, some on the information level, some on the infrastructure level, and some on simply the human psychosocial level, that maintain this gradient. We have a vested interest in maintaining this, as citizens who might feel entitled and officials who might feel powerful. But on some level I feel we each know the gradient needs to be overcome to allow greater capacity to address the challenges of the current times.

Tue, Apr 18, 2017 Gannon (J.) Dick Azle, TX

No doubt that part of President Trump's vision for Federal Government Agencies is a marketing staple in the commercial world: preplan an exit strategy so your prospective customers know the both the extent and the limits of your engagement. What is an endearing quality in House Guests is absolutely essential for statistical data collection on behalf of the "Homeland". In addition, an Agency Wide Vision can be partitioned automatically into smaller team sized Missions on paper alone. While counter-intuitive in some areas, in fields like Emergency Management the need for a preplanned exit strategy is clear: the last one, not the next one might be the "big one".

Mon, Apr 17, 2017 Owen Ambur Hilton Head, SC

Dan's point is very well taken. If and, hopefully, when agencies comply with section 10 of the GPRA Modernization Act (GPRAMA) and begin publishing their performance plans in machine-readable format, vendors and service providers like IBM will enable citizens to engage far more efficiently in support of public objectives. In the meantime, President Trump's executive order on government reorganization and his memo establishing the Office of American Innovation are available in StratML format, respectively, at & The purposes of those two Presidential directives cannot be effectively addressed without having both agency performance data in machine-readable format as well as widespread participation by the public.

Tue, Apr 4, 2017 Russell Ruggiero New York

Citizen Engagement - What does it mean to be part of a cohesive whole? One answer revolves around the “contribution” made to society. From an organic level the word contribute can be equated to “what do we add”. It could be in the form of social work to aid the sick and needy or pushing the envelope in astrophysics. These actions if performed in a positive way “add” to the whole and promote a more harmonious world. On the flip side, those who feel “entitled” and syphon benefits are playing the system for their own use. In the end we can only act for ourselves, and those actions as citizens will indeed have an impact in our society.

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