Viewpoint: Maximizing community engagement in a digital world

To foster interaction, government websites need to go beyond the basics

By Michael Ashford

Since local governments took to the Internet, they've been searching for ways not only to get residents to visit their websites, but also to stay there and come back. Changes in Internet and mobile functionality — as well as residents’ expectations — are placing a demand on governments to offer a more interactive online experience. The Internet provides governments a myriad of ways to better engage an ever-more physically detached population.

Understanding how to effectively engage residents digitally first requires an understanding of what community engagement – and more specifically digital community engagement – means. Digital community engagement is a local government’s response to residents’ expectation of government transparency, 24-7 access to channels for open dialogue and participation on issues important to the community in an online environment.There are four main factors driving communities to adopt a digital community engagement strategy:

  • Resident demand — According to CivicPlus’ Digital Citizen Engagement Survey, 70 percent of respondents agreed that the availability of digital interactions encourages them to be more engaged with government.
  • Mobile expansion — According to CMSWire, by 2015, there will be an estimated 10 billion mobile-enabled devices in use around the world.
  • Social media use — According to Nielsen, in the United States alone, 80 percent of the 245 million Internet users are connected to a social media site.
  • Cost savings — According to Accenture’s Digital Citizen Pulse Survey, digital interactions with citizens can cost up to 80 percent less than non-digital interactions.

Governments can address these factors by examining their web presence and going beyond the basics of what a website offers. Government websites should be about residents serving themselves at any time of day and not being bound to office hours. The websites should foster interaction not only with the government, but also with other residents. There are three ways this can be accomplished:

  • Transparency– Open up traditionally government-held processes and information to the public, in as close to real-time as possible. An example of transparency would be Madison, Wisc.’s open data portal.
  • Citizen Sourcing– Accept feedback and input from the public and incorporate the ideas of the “community brain trust.” A request management system or Omaha’s public input website are both examples of citizen sourcing.
  • MicroVoting– Take a pulse of the public’s thoughts, opinions, wants and needs by making issues and ideas “voteable” online. An example of MicroVoting would be Castle Rock, Colo.’s community voice platform.

As technology changes, what makes up effective digital community engagement will change as well. But governments’ goal should always be the same: to interact and engage more readily and more easily with residents through the use of website technology.

Michael Ashford is the director of marketing at Manhattan, Kan.-based CivicPlus (, which serves more than 1,300 government organizations in the United States, Canada and Australia with content management and web application software and services at

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