Agencies Urged to Engage More Citizens in Government Problem-Solving

On the local level, the city of Boston for seven years has used a mobile app called Citizens Connect to improve reporting of potholes, damaged signs and graffiti. On the local level, the city of Boston for seven years has used a mobile app called Citizens Connect to improve reporting of potholes, damaged signs and graffiti. Jorge Salcedo/

The federal government could move far beyond its current website in enlisting citizen help in policy problem-solving, says a new report  from the IBM Center for the Business of Government.

A convergence of budget austerity, more complex policy problems and the prevalence of digital technology ripens the current era for all government agencies to adopt more of the private-sector’s techniques for taking advantage of “customers’” thoughts and communications tools, according to University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee business and health information professors Satish Nambisan and Priya Nambisan.

From e-petitions to open-source databases, new resources in the digital era are spawning a shift in the potential role of a citizen from “that of a passive service beneficiary to that of an active, informed partner or co-creator in public service innovation and problem-solving,” they write in Engaging Citizens in Co-Creation in Public Services, part of the IBM Washington center’s series titled “Collaborating Across Boundaries.”

For example, “in the online and offline customer communities of companies such as Microsoft, Apple, and Harley-Davidson, individual customers assume the role of a product evangelist and influence peers’ perceptions of new products, thereby facilitating their rapid diffusion,” the professors write. “Such a role is increasingly relevant for citizens in diffusing public sector innovation.”

This approach enables citizens to play four basic roles, the report says: as explorers of problems, ideators of solutions, designers of implementation and diffusers of innovation “among well-defined target populations.”

Some current administration initiatives demonstrate the government’s adoption of the strategy, including the General Services Administration’s online suggestion box at and the White House “We the People” petitions.

On the local level, the city of Boston for seven years has used a mobile app called Citizens Connect to improve reporting of potholes, damaged signs and graffiti. Overseas, the report notes, e-petitions have been implemented by governments in the United Kingdom, Scandinavia and South Korea to refine programs in such areas as public transportation and senior living.

The IBM report offers insights on tapping citizen engagement while tailoring the approach to duration and scale of innovation; managing citizen expectations; linking the agency’s internal organization with external partners, and embedding citizen engagement more broadly within the agency’s goals. 

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