How can governments harness citizen input in decision-making?

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June 2018

By Ruby Leahy Gatfield

Engage2’s panel discussion in Sydney this week left us asking important questions about how governments can use new tools to better engage and listen to citizens, and importantly, how we can measure the impact of public engagement activities on government decision-making. 

The Vivid Ideas event, Democracy is being Disrupted: Governing in the 21st Century, brought together leading experts in democracy building and community engagement to discuss what participation in a representative democracy should look like and the many new tools and methodologies available for building stronger democracies.

Tom Burton, publisher for The Mandarin, opened the event by asking how our institutions are and should be responding to the global phenomena of democratic disruption. 

A burning platform

Alan Dupont, CEO of the Cognoscenti Group and political strategist, then warmed up the panel by creating a “burning platform” to spur change, as asked by Engage2 Managing Director, Amelia Loye.

Dupont explained that a recent rise in populism and democratic backsliding in countries around the world have led everyday people, particularly young people, to question the value of democracy. He went on to outline five causes of democratic disruption that he has observed:

  1. Macro-system instability and the demise of the Pax Americana
  2. Digitalisation—the rise of IT and social media, which have both facilitated democratisation and shone a light on our institutions’ imperfections
  3. Rising inequality—which has created distrust in government and the value of democracy
  4. Increased unregulated migration—which has divided public debate and led to civil unrest and disenfranchisement
  5. Urbanisation and population growth.

Dupont concluded that “while democracy is being disrupted, it is not beyond repair”. This echoes International IDEA’s recent research, The Global State of Democracy, which found that, since 1975, the world has experienced significant democratic progress – particularly in terms of clean and fair elections, respect for human rights, checks and balances on government and citizen engagement. However, this progress has slowed significantly over the past decade. The report concluded that we are now at a crossroads and need to adapt our processes and institutions to safeguard democracy.

How can we better engage citizens?

Dupont’s remarks were followed by a lively panel discussion between Burton; Dupont; Loye; Elizabeth Tydd, NSW Information Commissioner and CEO of the Information and Privacy Commission NSW; Daryl Karp, Australian Museum of Democracy; Iain Walker, Executive Director of the New Democracy Foundation; and Jamie Skella, Co-founder of Horizon State.

The discussion highlighted the need for governments to not only engage the disengaged, but to genuinely listen to and deliberate with the many Australians who are engaged, but don’t feel they can influence government decision-making or policies.

This is particularly important in the context of the Open Government Partnership, an international initiative to ‘secure a commitment from governments to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance’. Australia became a member of the Partnership in 2015 with the launch of its first National Action Plan.

To help honour our commitment to the Partnership and strengthen our democracy more broadly, the panel discussed many emerging technologies and methodologies for effective citizen engagement. These range from sophisticated artificial intelligence and data mining techniques to analyse qualitative feedback, through blockchain voting technology, to face-to-face methods. Face-to-face methods can enable people to deeply engage, exchange view points and build shared understandings.

When engaging citizens, they stressed the importance of reaching representative samples; breaking down information for people to digest and thoughtfully consider; asking open-ended consultation questions without predetermined policy responses; using co-design as a genuine method (not a buzzword); and using a multifaceted approach—both online and face-to-face. Tydd observed that local councils often engage particularly well through on-the-ground consultations.

Measuring the impact of engagement

As monitoring and evaluation specialists, the panel left us asking some fundamental questions about how we can measure the impact of citizen engagement activities.

To what extent are governments effectively engaging citizens? Is the feedback collected in consultations publicly reported? How do we know whether this feedback is influencing decision-making and policy design? And where it isn’t, is the rationale communicated?

We know from experience that feeding back how data is used is key to effective, ongoing engagement. So, it is critical that agencies monitor and evaluate their engagement activities to answer these questions, be transparent and accountable, and ultimately, build greater trust in democratic processes.

Stay tuned as we set out to answer some of these questions in upcoming research.