The more citizens participate in the local government process, the better local government can serve these citizens.
The problem is, when it comes to citizen engagement, there is often unequal representation within communities. Some groups are more active, and certain voices are heard more than others. This can trickle into local government decisions, resulting in initiatives that are not inclusive of the whole community.
Cities and counties around the world are experimenting with ways to bring more voices into local decision making. They’re using everything from mobile apps to virtual questionnaires to podcasts and social media.
But just because you build something to promote citizen participation, it doesn’t mean people will use it. As much as we want citizens to be active and engaged with their local government’s work, sometimes they need a little nudge.
The Fingal County Council, IE, did just that. The county created an app that not only makes it easy for citizens to engage with the government, it incentivises them to actually do so.
Boosting citizen engagement
The Fingal Voices app was conceived out of a challenge launched in 2018 by Enterprise Ireland, Smart Dublin, and Fingal County. The Unheard Voices Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) challenge set out to bring “unheard voices” (in other words people who were less vocal or represented in local government) into Fingal’s decision making process.
“The initiative provides an exciting opportunity for local authorities to explore innovative methods to inclusively engage and, to also, provide support to different communities of stakeholders in articulating their needs throughout the engagement process.
It is hoped that going beyond the range of conventional communication and public consultation methods will help to actively involve all communities in discussions about the future of their place.”
A company called Smart Futures was selected to develop an app to engage the community. To start, various community members were invited to join a series of workshops. This helped validate their needs and helped designers understand specific features that would help citizens.
Once contextual research was done, developers from Smart Futures launched a beta version of the new app in October 2019, allowing users to test it and provide feedback through January 2020. The final product, the Fingal Voices app, then launched in May 2020.
The Cork City Council also participated in the SBIR challenge, but instead of launching an app the city developed a local grant portal that invites Cork-based groups to submit proposals for grants to fund community-focused projects.
How the Fingal Voices app works
The app, which is available for free on Apple and Android smartphones, tackles both parts of the citizen engagement process.
First, it fosters engagement. Users can participate in local government consultations. They can answer questions, such as “what’s your favorite Fingal beach?” They can vote on surveys, like “which type of exercise equipment would you like installed” in a park. They can submit suggestions for local improvements, and share feedback so that others in the community can see it.
The app also serves up local information, such as updates or events. Geo-targeting functionality customizes the content presented — users see events or questions that are relevant to their location.
Second, the app rewards users for their feedback. Answering questions or submitting input earns the user points. These points can then be turned into vouchers at participating local businesses.
We’ve seen localities use mobile apps to foster citizen engagement — products like Voterfied allow for polling and questionnaires similar to Fingal Voices. It’s a smart approach, because it reaches citizens on a platform many of them use regularly: their phone. Combining the two elements is a savvy approach; citizens are incentivised to engage with the app, and in doing so, more feedback, from more diverse sources, should make its way back to the local government. (It also has the side benefit of promoting local businesses through use of the rewards.) Dominic Byrne, Head of IT at Fingal County Council, explains:
”The Fingal Voices app is an exciting development in harnessing the dominance and popularity of smartphone apps to include and engage people.
The app's use of gamification shows that Fingal County Council is unafraid of trying innovative approaches to drive citizen engagement and involvement in local government.”