06/19/2013 09:22 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Smaller Cities Engage Citizens Through Small Business Innovation

People say they'd like to influence or actively participate in their local government. In fact, according to a Civic Plus Digital Citizen Engagement survey, nearly half of those polled want to provide input into their municipal government.

But turning this interest into action is one of the biggest roadblocks to implementing local community ideas. How can local municipalities tap into the increasing power of social and mobile technologies to create a community of active influencers?

One of the foundational tools for this conversion is already widely used: mobile devices. In North America alone, smartphone usage is about 55 percent and is expected to reach more than 70 percent by 2016. Knowing the ubiquity of this vital communications tool, local governments are investing in systems to share relevant local information.

Everyone understands that information flowing from government to citizens and from citizens to government is critical for responsible citizenship and responsive and accountable governance. Informed citizens are better equipped to access services, exercise their rights and hold their representatives accountable. Smarter governments know that information sharing re-energizes and encourages wider participation in public processes.

Governments have discovered that citizens are more likely to access relevant information via text, tweet or Facebook comment than via impersonal robo-calls or flyers. These new methods are less expensive than phone and face-to-face interactions. There also are no time constraints in cyberspace; citizens can consume and submit information on their own schedule 24 hours a day, increasing the likelihood of their engagement and participation.

If a citizen knew that traffic congestion would be especially high due to a major event taking place, would that person choose to take the bus or the train instead of driving his car into work? Or if a small business owner had accessed the minutes of a city council meeting on initiatives to help drive sustainability, would she begin to start working with suppliers that sold eco-friendly materials? Local businesses could also partner with governments and publicize and socialize their goods and services in more interactive ways, which could lead to more business and unique marketing opportunities.

At the same time, online resources can provide citizens with virtual anytime, anywhere access to the cloud-based information and services. Citizens can look up information about events, apply for permits or licenses, pay bills and fines, or log reports and requests. Governments can also provide access to relevant data such as weather, traffic, pollution air quality, or unemployment benefits.

The city of Dubuque, Iowa, combines smart meters and powerful analytics to give its citizens the insights they need to adjust their energy and water consumption. The results -- an 11 percent reduction in electricity usage and a 7 percent reduction in water usage -- are impressive. City council leaders now have abundant evidence that the cloud-based access to its progressive policies and programs, influenced by citizens, are attracting new residents to put down roots in the city, boosting economic vitality.

Creating these kinds of communications and engagement systems, don't have to be a luxury. All communities have the same appetite for interactive engagement with their citizens, and city mayors and administrators are thinking of creative ways to balance these strategic goals with operational cost efficiency.

How is all of this accomplished? Innovative small- and medium-sized IT providers are collaborating with local governments and larger suppliers to deliver better value for the taxpayer. Tapping local innovation potential could bolster small local companies, which in turn creates jobs and drives local economic growth, all while improving citizen services. And unlike larger cities, smaller municipalities have more agility to maneuver around bureaucratic obstacles, creating a more direct line of communication between citizens and their representatives.

For instance, discussions around a piece of legislation or an upcoming election requires the dissemination of large amounts of information as well as the ability to collect and analyze citizens' reactions. Big data collected from these online conversations can provide insights that influence policy for the city, and tools like social media or cloud computing simply speed the pace of proposals or analysis delivered to constituents.

As we've seen, given the widespread adoption of mobile devices, social media platforms and cloud computing, citizen expectations of how they interact with private organizations have changed how they view their relationship with public entities. Why shouldn't the public expect its government to offer the same personalized communications they get from online shopping sites?

Thanks to social media, mobile and cloud technologies, city governments and local organizations are finding the right resources and the right technologies to better engage their constituents to help move government forward making ordinary citizens the center of civic life.

For more information about Smarter Cities, click here.

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