Jay Aspin. Member of Parliament of Canadá – MP.

The level of citizen engagement is sometimes used to assess how healthy a democracy is. According to some sociologists, the higher the number of citizens who participate and the more varied their backgrounds the greater the likelihood that the principle of equality, an essential principle in a democracy, will be fully respected.

Citizen engagement is not new as preliminary work dates to the 1980s and early 90s which is quite inspirational for many working on issues of gathering and acting on citizen feedback.  However, in this era of the internet, an important factor has changed. There has been an increasing demand by society and its citizens to have a more accurate and greater say in public decision-making and a desire among many governments to be more inclusive and responsive to citizens’ needs. The meteoric rise of innovations in technology has provided citizens with new and unprecedented opportunities to directly engage policy makers and provided the potential to facilitate and close the feedback loop between citizens and governments. This is a global trend as citizen engagement became a strategic priority for the World Bank in 2013.

While this World Bank goal is a real opportunity to move the citizen engagement agenda forward, it also raises many challenges. For example, how can this initiative enhance the participation of people in local decision-making processes in a sustainable manner? Can citizen engagement initiatives go beyond listening to people and in fact make the development process and institutions more inclusive? Can it give citizens the opportunity to co-design and co-implement programs in partnership with governments, society and businesses?

Engaged citizens are critical to the development and success of smart cities. In general,  there are fundamental reasons why Canadian cities are focusing on citizen engagement:

  1. More money for cities – Evidence shows citizens participating in local government public policy issues lead to increased tax compliance for cities.
  2. More data available – Citizen engagement data is powerful.  Data includes the ideas suggested by citizens, the critiques of policies and plans, the data directly created through polls and social media, and the data indirectly created through page visits, traffic counters and field rentals.
  3. More livable cities – Citizens happy with and engaged in their local government promote government and community usually benefit in countless indirect ways such as the location of new businesses, the initiation of new non-profit services for the disadvantaged, the organization of a new arts or entertainment annual event

In this increasing technical world, Canadian municipalities are awakening to seize the significant advantages in municipal decision-making resulting from citizen engagement processes.

Notable examples are:

  • Toronto has an app with the dual purpose of enabling cyclists to track their rides with GPS and help the city of Toronto improve current cycling infrastructure and plan for future cycling investment. The app allows users to provide trip information including purpose, route, day and time that will be analyzed to assist in determining high demand corridors used by cyclists, identifying neighborhood links and giving city planners a better sense of how cyclists adapt to changes to cycling infrastructure over time.
  • Calgary has turned a city bus into a mobile focus group. People can ride for free if they agree to short interviews and discussions with city officials who are gathering citizen comments on various city initiatives for direct feedback.
  • King Township residents can use this app to conveniently access information on waste, recycling, local news and events. The app also allows residents to submit service requests to the city with a photograph of the problem and its geo-coordinates.