Online Communities for Civic Engagement

Updated: Jan 3

Written by: Evan Goodfellow

Market Research Online Communities were initially used for businesses but now civic communities are seeing how powerful they can be for building consensus.


Civic Communities Playing Catch Up

The concept of the Innovation Adoption Lifecycle has been around for many years and has been applied to many industries, products and services. Innovators, Early Adopters, Early Majority, Late Majority and Laggards are all terms used to describe segments of the population who vary on how quickly they adopt new innovation.

Cities are no different in how they adopt new technology. On one end of the continuum are the innovators, and at the other end are the laggards. The following excerpts from the UK show how a relatively recent digital innovation, “online communities,” or “online research communities” have been a key component of creating change.  This article talks about the potential for this technology to change how cities work, prioritize and deal with issues by using the input of its citizens to collectively solve problems.


Evolution of Councils in the U.K.

The U.K. provides a useful model of how councils are evolving.  In recent years, these councils have been experiencing reduced budgets, and devolution, whereby the state has been providing for new freedoms and flexibilities for local authorities in return for greater responsibilities.


In a recent presentation compiled for PricewaterhouseCooper. LLP (PWC) entitled Beyond Control – Local Government in the Age of Participation, authors Ian Evans and Ben Pykett look at the current trend in the devolution of local government, the increase in technology, and the role it plays in community participation.


In the past five years, UK local authorities have undergone tremendous change. They have become more compact and their power and reach has been greatly diminished. With drastic financial cuts, and a rise in technology, there has been a transfer of responsibility and power from city council members to community members. As councils rationalized services, local groups and communities stepped in to manage libraries, theatres and local amenities.

A focus of local authorities has been to work more efficiently. The push has been to promote smarter ways of working and an emphasis on promoting local growth. Councils leading the way are focusing on collaboration. Pykett and Evans write, “the leading councils are collaborating within this space, resulting in the emergence of new administrative and quasi-administrative geographies where productive participation is key.” This push for more community based contribution has come in large part due to technology.


Technology and Associations

In the past, many people feared that technology and social networks might threaten or destroy location based associations.  However, this has not been the case. The concept of communities has evolved and now consists of “increasing numbers of ‘digital natives’ who are making an active contribution to society.” Councils now need to utilize the digital world, which can help to build the workforce and empower community members. With the right strategy, councils can maximize effectiveness of their staff, and create collective participation, resulting in responsible, independent community members.


Councils need to realize the power of social media. Through social media and mobile optimized online communities, councils can engage community members and sections of the population that previously had limited contact with council decision makers. Pykett and Evans write, “the ability to communicate directly with significant proportions of society is giving rise to further opportunities to build community capacity.” Technology has increased connectivity on all levels and created an opportunity for dialogue.


Councils Adoption of the Online Community

Councils have begun using online community groups and forums for members to share their opinions. These online groups and forums provide a place for individuals to share ideas with municipal decision makers, as well as with each other.  One such initiative has commenced in Surrey, U.K. called The Shift Surrey initiative. It encourages local residents to sign up online so that members can collectively participate in problem solving. Another example of this kind of community online support is used for foster carers across the country in peer to peer support. As a result of empowering communities, there is reduced dependency on certain services that cities have provided in the past.


The private sector has understood the importance of information and the role it can play in helping identify demand and maximizing impact of their investments. Pykett and Evans write, “Councils hold significant data assets but they have much to learn about the value of consolidating and using this information.” They go on to state that less than half of local leaders and chief executives make informed decisions based on data analytics. There is a tremendous need for local authorities to understand the data and use the data to predict future outcomes and scenarios.


The challenge for local governments is how to adapt their traditional methods of management in order to enhance positive results for their community members. In the past, councils have been the gatekeepers for information and service access. The need is for council members to work with service users and come up with an innovative approach that is based on the ideas of the group as a whole rather than a select few. Pykett and Evans state, “the real power of digital participation starts to be realized where the disparate elements of digital transactions, communities and engagement are fully integrated through single cloud-based platforms.”


What will future civic communities look like? Consumers are used to having retailers use their information to provide a personally tailored level of service. Just like retailers, councils hold a large amount of detailed information about their customers. This data can be used to provide relevant contents based on their citizen’s life situation. This could allow council members to finely target messaging and assistance to community members. An example might be an unemployed skilled labourer in the community, trained in welding, receiving the job notifications and support that he may need.


As community members have come to adopt digital usage in their life, councils are in need of incorporating this technology into their understanding and model of communities. This technology is powerful and has the power to create highly connected, efficient communities that draw upon the group collective rather than the select few. The leaders in these communities are encouraged to make use of the data and to make decisions that reflect the data and the community rather than personal opinion.  Cities like Surrey, U.K are leading the way in using insight communities to help make decisions based on the wishes of the community. While the private sector has been quick to take advantage of big data, market research and digital strategy, civic communities are now starting to see the importance in creating a strong digital strategy.


Let’s talk about communities.  Contact us now to start the discussion!


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