How GIS Can Close the Citizen Engagement Feedback Loop

Posted by Jessie Kwak on September 08, 2015

A good citizen engagement feedback loop needs to be productive and bi-directional, rather than just being a channel for people to complain, or a way for government to push out information. It needs to facilitate reciprocal responses. First, government needs to hear from its citizens in order to know its services are meeting needs. Second, citizens need to know their input has been heard and is making a difference.

Fortunately, technology is providing new and powerful tools to connect government with constituents. Social media, cloud-based communication software, and geographic information systems (GIS) are all helping to close the feedback loop.

GIS is especially powerful, creating a feedback loop that can provide transparent data, collect input from citizens, and create accountability between both parties.


Share data with your constituents

The first mandate of an open government is to share data and information with its constituents. Clear, easily accessible data provides transparency into how an organization is serving its citizens, and why a particular course has been chosen.

Using a GIS platform to distribute that data takes things a step further in helping people understand the bigger picture. Clear, colorful GIS maps for zoning, land use, infrastructure planning, garbage pick up routes, graffiti removal, and other government services allow citizens to easily analyze the raw data and answer the fundamental question: “What does all this mean to me?”

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In most municipalities, citizens already have the right to all this information. Providing it automatically in a manner that’s easy to understand and available on demand will reduce the number of calls and walk-ins organizations typically get, and create opportunities for collaboration.


Involve constituents in the collection of data

Mobile technologies are making it easier than ever before to crowd-source the collection of data. Web and mobile apps can allow people to report maintenance issues, code violations, and other concerns, allowing citizens to make their voices heard and governments to collect information quickly and cost effectively.

Mobile 311 apps allow citizens to snap a photo of a pothole or downed tree branch and submit it through the app, which automatically geotags the photo for inclusion on a GIS map of road improvement projects. Other users can access the GIS map, adding their own comments.

By mapping this citizen-generated data with GIS, organizations can easily spot trends in public health, criminal activity, and animal control issues. Through public-facing maps, citizens can track your organization’s progress on the issue they reported, as well as other issues in their neighborhood.

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Use public-facing GIS to build accountability

The feedback loop can’t end with the data being reported. Each suggestion, complaint, and incident needs to be recorded into the city’s customer request system in order to be dealt with. Ideally, that system will be automated so that the citizen will get status updates letting them know that the request has been received by the appropriate department, is being tracked, and has been resolved.

This loop builds trust that constituent voices are being heard and responded to, and removes a major barrier many citizens have to participation: the frustration that nothing is done with the information they report.

Citizens expect to be notified of progress on packages they ship and complaint tickets they open with their cable companies. Public-facing GIS, when combined with automated workflow processes that automatically notify the appropriate department and track progress, can create that much-needed layer of accountability.


GIS helps build partnerships with your constituents

In a step beyond collecting and acting on feedback, what if government agencies could actively collaborate with engaged citizens?

GIS is a powerful tool for establishing common ground between government organizations and the constituents they serve. By creating a user-friendly, collaborative platform that’s accessible by both government officials and citizens, GIS facilitates deeper engagement.

Citizens are already using GIS-based services from private companies on their computers and mobile devices. They’re creating (and sharing) routes with Google Maps, searching for (and rating) restaurants on Yelp and Foursquare, and communicating with neighbors on NextDoor. Citizens increasingly want – and expect – to have this same level of engagement and participation with their government.

Participation in local government used to be a matter of writing letters and showing up to town hall forums. With user-friendly GIS, governments can provide a platform for engagement to those constituents who want to contribute but are strapped for time. It can provide a way for thoughtful citizens to analyze existing public data and come up with innovative solutions to public problems.

Our world is becoming increasingly participatory. The municipalities who use available technology tools  like GIS to tap into this desire to participate will be rewarded with an engaged, forward-thinking public and creative solutions.