Citizen engagement key to improving policies and services
Progressive governments are accessing a wider pool of ideas and solutions from their citizens in order to remain competitive, responsive and resilient. Citizen engagement can play an integral role in policymaking through the granular understanding of issues and ideation of practical solutions that meet real-life needs. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the impact of engaging citizens in informing decision-makers on effective response efforts, which often hinge on the personal attitudes and behaviors needed to mitigate transmission of the virus.
Many nations have embedded citizen engagement as a key stage in their policy or service design processes. Engagement can take the form of public opinion polls, satisfaction surveys, interviews, citizen-led advisory committees, online forums, feedback forms, design-thinking workshops, and ideation sessions. To illustrate, policymakers can solicit public opinion on various issues, such as education or healthcare, in order to evaluate current delivery systems or gauge reception to future plans.
Many governments also conduct annual well-being surveys that assess various areas, from labor policies, economic programs and urban planning plans to social services, education systems and healthcare services. A notable example is the recent case of the pandemic, where many opinion polls questioned citizens’ willingness to be vaccinated and take personal measures to avoid COVID-19 infection, along with behavioral health data and well-being levels — findings that helped chart the path forward on containment plans.
Face-to-face workshops are another way for policymakers to understand citizens’ needs and the root causes of certain issues, such as youth unemployment, school dropout rates and divorce. These exercises can be particularly illuminating when discussions revolve around understanding the rationale behind social behaviors, decisions or attitudes in policy areas, such as public health, social issues and labor market dynamics. Periodically inviting citizens to take part in design thinking activities can promote enlightening and innovative solutions, since many citizens also possess unique sets of knowledge and skills that position them as experts.
Interviews with diverse target groups can enable policymakers to understand the unique challenges facing specific social segments. Participants can reveal real-life, practical and valuable insights that are pivotal for designing effective policies, such as in designing solutions that address the daily challenges of the elderly segment of the population or working parents. By co-designing tailored solutions, policymakers can improve the design of policies and services, which can in turn enhance citizen well-being. This is why it is useful to immerse policymakers in citizen engagement programs. At the same time, citizens gain knowledge of the intricacies involved in setting policy, which leads to enhanced appreciation and trust in government efforts.
To leverage the advantages of collective dialogue, many governments are experimenting with innovative tools and ideas. The UAE has done a marvelous job of designing citizen-centric public services. One way of achieving this is via the engagement of public bodies with citizens in the form of public opinion polls, brainstorming workshops and consultations on ideas currently being developed by government agencies.
In 2017, the UAE convened a meeting for federal and local government representatives to design the country’s road map for the next five decades. The government asked for ideas from the public, to be submitted on electronic portals, on priority areas, including youth, housing, technology, national identity, education, health, and the environment. Another successful event was the Services Factory, which engaged the public to identify needs and design ideas for services in order to improve the overall government service experience. Discussions revolved around enhancing services pertaining to employment, pensions, marriage registration, newborns, scholarships and enterprises.
Singapore has also taken many measures to foster citizen engagement in policy and service design. In 2019, the Singaporean government launched the Citizens’ Panel on Work-Life Harmony, which brought together 55 participants to discuss optimal conditions in the workplace and community to achieve work-life harmony and possibly address the country’s low fertility rates. The group was made up of a unique mix of demographics — including business owners, senior management, full-time employees, freelancers, students and homemakers — that enriched discussions and offered unique perspectives on the same challenge. This workshop eventually led to the formulation of 17 recommendations that were presented to various stakeholders.
South Korea, meanwhile, has a remarkable record of engaging citizens in various stages of policymaking at all levels of government, such as priority setting, budget planning, policy design, delivery and evaluation. One notable example is when the Seoul Metropolitan Government convened 100 citizens from diverse backgrounds to participate in the devising of its 2030 master plan. Together with public officials and urban planning experts, the citizens shared valuable insights on key areas, such as stable housing markets, efficient transportation networks, labor policies for women and the elderly, the conservation of historical landscapes, the promotion of the creative industries, and the customization of welfare services according to different areas’ needs.
Interviews with diverse target groups can enable policymakers to understand the unique challenges facing specific social segments.
Through the world-class Seoul Innovation Bureau, the government continues to tap into citizens’ valuable contributions. For example, an online portal was created to encourage people to share ideas and insights on policy areas and services. Moreover, the bureau also coordinates with various public departments to organize regular workshops, in which citizens and policymakers meet to discuss specific topics.
As evident in these many successful stories, we can glean valuable ideas and insights by harnessing the collective intelligence of citizens in the process of designing policies and services.
- Sara Al-Mulla is an Emirati civil servant with an interest in human development policy and children’s literature. She can be contacted at www.amorelicious.com.