Modern Technology and Citizen Engagement: How Smartphones Could Solve An Age-Old Policy Challenge

The Walter Gordon Symposium is an annual conference co-hosted by the School of Public Policy and Governance and Massey College. In the lead up to the 2015 Walter Gordon Symposium, students, speakers, faculty, and community members are invited to share their reflections on the theme of ‘Confronting Complexity’ in Canadian society. ​This year’s conference will take place on March 25 and 26, 2015.

Zachary Lewsen

This year’s Walter Gordon Symposium on public policy will bring together panelists from a wide range of disciplines to confront complexity and develop new ways to address our toughest policy problems. Topics to be discussed include media, governance, and leadership in both the private and non-profit sectors. Yet perhaps the panelists should also consider modern technology, and how it could be used address age-old policy challenges – such as, for example, that of citizen engagement.

Community engagement took flight as an important policy tool in the 1970s, largely thanks to research undertaken by political scientist and Nobel Memorial Prize winner in Economic Sciences Elinor Ostrom. In an analysis of the Chicago Police Department, Ostrom noted that the department’s shift away from beat (community-based) policing to a more impersonal vehicle patrol system sparked a decline in the officers’ casual, daily discussions with residents — the loss of which spurred an unpredicted increase in unresponsive policing and neighbourhood crime. Ostrom concluded that citizens may indeed be dependent on police; but that police, sometimes, need citizens just as much.

Ostrom used these observations as the basis for a new model of public service delivery, dubbed “co-production”, which stresses the notion that the civil service may require citizens to act as its eyes and ears on the ground. Co-production encourages the public sector to reject top down service-provision and, instead, to allow government employees to engage in a collaborative — and reciprocal — manner with the citizens they serve. Since the 1970s, this model of public service delivery has influenced policy implementation in healthcare, criminal justice, and emergency medical services.

Today, the question is this: can modern technology enhance this form of citizen engagement? Boston’s city councilors might say yes. In 2010, the city launched the Boston Office of New Urban Mechanics (NUM), which aims to “explore how new technology, designs and policies can strengthen the partnership between residents and government and significantly improve opportunity and experiences for all.” NUM has since pioneered the creation of several smartphone apps such as Citizens Connect, an app that effectively enables local residents to serve as the city’s eyes and ears. Residents can download the Citizens Connect App for free, and then use it to snap photos of perceived problems ranging from broken street lights, to potholes, or even uncollected garbage. The app then takes care of the rest by filing a service request with the correct municipal department.

NUM also launched the Street Bump app in 2011, which helps Boston residents report potholes while driving. Described by its marketing team as an app that “runs while you drive”, Street Bump requires individuals to turn their smart phone on and place it on the dashboard or cup-holder before driving. The phone detects any bumps the car drives over and automatically location-stamps the incident using a GPS system. Street Bump then sends the data to the city’s public works division, which in turn advises work-crews to check for potholes.

NUM apps have thus far provided the city of Boston with encouraging results, and have dramatically improved citizen communication with the city. Citizen use of the various apps produced by the office now account for over 20 per cent of Boston’s municipal service requests.

This technology, however, is no silver bullet for citizen engagement. Street Bump has often “over-detected” the surface, leaving work-crews chasing after phantom-potholes; and aside from the predictable technical challenges, NUM apps have also sparked equity concerns amongst experts. Kate Crawford, a Visiting Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s center for Civic Media, has argued that mobile apps can aggravate municipal class divides. Those citizens most eager to use NUM apps are often wealthy, young residents with access to the latest — and fastest — smartphone technology. Simply by using the apps in their own neighbourhoods, wealthy residents could funnel scarce municipal resources to the most affluent districts, depriving low-income neighborhoods of needed city maintenance.

While the NUM apps still require some fine-tuning, Boston’s initiative offers one example of how municipal governments can apply modern technologies to increase citizen engagement and be proactive in addressing citizens’ concerns. As such, this year’s Walter Gordon Symposium should go one step further in confronting complexity, and explore how technology can be used to enhance public service delivery in an equitable manner.

As municipalities continue to grow in both population and complexity, policymakers will need to generate innovative urban policies. To do so, we might want to expand our cities’ — and our own— mobile app use.

Zachary Lewsen is a 2016 Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto and an Editorial Assistant with the Public Policy and Governance Review. He previously completed an Honours Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science at McGill University, and has since interned for the NATO Council of Canada. A keen observer of provincial and municipal politics, Zach hopes to explore a career in urban, immigration, or economic policy.

[Image: Getty]

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