Here's How Our Municipal Government Can Encourage Citizen Engagement
Torontoist has been acquired by Daily Hive Toronto - Your City. Now. Click here to learn more.



Here’s How Our Municipal Government Can Encourage Citizen Engagement

The key is meeting people where they are.

The Toronto Foundation recently released its annual Vital Signs report, which provides a comprehensive snapshot of trends and issues affecting the quality of life in our city. The report revealed that a “dismal 5% of Toronto’s millennials report feeling that their local government listens to them.” To make matters worse, Vital Signs reported that citizens’ trust in government, specifically the police, is on the decline.

To say that citizens in Toronto feel “meh” about their relationship with government is an understatement. And who can blame them? The relationship isn’t a two-way street. Sure, there are ways we can interact with our local government, like 311 or Twitter, but these only facilitate communication to an extent. In general, citizens feel like their voices are not being heard or that they don’t have a channel to fix things that aren’t working in this city.

So what can government do to restore engagement and trust with the public?

That’s a tough question that can beget an infinite list of answers. But if there is one thing that can be used as the guiding light to restore citizen engagement, it is to meet people where they are. That is, meet communities where they live, work, and play, and then design public policies and programs from the ground up. When this happens, relationships are built on trust, citizens are engaged, and communities are made stronger.

“Eighty per cent of success is just showing up.”

As Woody Allen famously said, just being physically present can go a long way. This is the philosophy that the City of Boston has embraced. Inspired by the versatility of food trucks, City Hall to Go brings various city services to neighbourhoods via a repurposed bomb squad truck. Many citizens need personal interaction to get information, ask questions, and access city services, but travelling to City Hall in downtown Boston is an inconvenience or not an option for some. “The ‘City Hall to Go’ truck makes personal, timely service from the City of Boston possible for a whole new set of constituents,” said then-mayor Thomas Menino in 2013, when the initiative began. Being physically present with citizens in their neighbourhoods gives public servants the opportunity to really get to know communities.

Boston’s City Hall to Go uses Twitter to let residents know when and where they can access city services in their neighbourhood. Photo courtesy of City Hall to Go Twitter.

Boston’s City Hall to Go uses Twitter to let residents know when and where they can access city services in their neighbourhood. Photo courtesy of City Hall to Go’s Twitter page.

Get to know your users

At Civic Tech Toronto’s weekly hack nights, we encourage project teams to truly understand the communities they are trying to help. Our user research workshops challenge teams to get out from behind their laptops, interview users, and dig deep to get at the root of some pretty complex social problems. It’s not easy, but it is an immensely valuable learning experience. Yale Fox is a civic technologist and the CEO of Rentlogic, a service that aims to create transparency in the rental housing market. He understands the value of user research and the impact that feedback can have on shaping product strategy.

“Anonymous renter surveys have helped us to mock up more effective apartment rating cards for tenants,” says Fox. “We found that the majority of renters didn’t know that they could use the City of Toronto’s 311 service to investigate problems with landlords, so in response to this finding, we are designing our rating cards to serve as 311 ads. Renters get transparency and the City gets free 311 advertising—it’s a win-win.”

This seemingly minor design enhancement is incredibly empowering for renters: if a building has a poor rating, renters know where they can go for help. User research helped Rentlogic to create a product predicated on action and truly benefit the community of tenants in Toronto.


Feedback gathered via user research has helped to refine the designs of Rentlogic’s building rating cards. These mockups continue to undergo design updates and are not sanctioned by the City of Toronto. Photo courtesy of Rentlogic.

Be an anthropologist

Communities are complex entities—they have their own unique compositions and social norms. Meeting people where they are provides opportunities for ethnographic research that can surface valuable insights to guide policy and program development. Public servants working for the City of Somerville in Massachusetts put on their anthropologist hats when they were figuring out ways to improve uptake of city services by the diverse immigrant population. Field observations inspired city staff to test various ways of promoting programs to maximize uptake and participation. They discovered that merely changing the visual designs of city posters—like the colour schemes and design elements—to reflect the cultural style of targeted ethnicities yielded greater engagement than the posters that only had translated text.

Denise Taylor, director of communications and community engagement at the City of Somerville, presented this case study at the Code for America Summit. “When you walk by an ad, even if it’s in your language but you don’t have that quick visual cue, you might not even read it,” she said. Ethnographic insights can help government to design programs that nudge people to be more engaged citizens.

We want to have a relationship with our government. We live in the age where the internet has the democratic potential to provide everyone with a voice, but if government is not listening, we can’t expect this relationship to get any better. Yes, listening is a messy process, but government should embrace the “firehose of feedback.” As Taylor explained, “we realize we can’t satisfy all of the feedback, but at least we can listen to it. And we do our best to respond and acknowledge.” Listen and acknowledge—two simple baby steps our local government can take to meet citizens where they are.

Dorothy Eng is a co-founder of Civic Tech Toronto.