Following over 15 months of immense challenge for local councils and governments, New Start spoke to Lora Botev, UK development manager at CitizenLab, who are on a mission to broaden and diversify the ways in which citizens can partake in local decision-making. With low election turnout last month and talk of having to show photo ID at the polling booth next time around, Lora explains the need for a hybrid approach of traditional methods and innovative engagement tools, to protect local democracy and planning.
Could you provide an overview of CitizenLab, and your role within the company?
As an organisation, we try to improve the way in which governments and public organisations involve their residents in the decision making process. We do this by providing them with an online platform, which is essentially a hub where they build and nurture a community of active residents by engaging them on a variety of policy topics, big or small. Projects can range from the regeneration of a public space to the way in which the local budget should be spent.
I joined CitizenLab in May 2020 when the company started expanding internationally. We had already worked successfully with numerous councils in Belgium and neighbouring countries. It was time to expand our horizons. My role is to develop our presence on the UK market by building new partnerships with local councils and helping them manage their engagement projects.
Do you feel local communities have become more important to citizens since the pandemic began?
I think that particularly in the early stages of the pandemic, a lot of us realised how important it is to have a close-knit and active local community. It showed to be a precious source of support and solidarity. So many people signed up to carry grocery bags to those shielding or making phone calls to the elderly, who were particularly isolated. Being forced to stay at home probably pushed us to look around us and see who we share our building blocks and streets with.
How should local councils and governments measure success, in terms of effectively delivering on the will of their people?
I think it is all about an efficient feedback loop. From the onset of any consultation process, the council itself must understand when it is going to ask residents to dedicate time to engaging with the council, and when it will be informing them about how this feedback is feeding into the decision-making process. The planning process of any engagement project is an extremely important phase as you are really setting the foundations of that feedback process. Apart from a clear timeline, another way of measuring success is by seeing if residents come back to you about other consultations. If they keep coming back and sharing their thoughts, it is reflective of success and residents feel like you are listening to them.
CitizenLab advocates for a hybrid approach of in-person engagement and virtual participation; Do you feel this is the key to wider civic involvement in decision making?
Prior to the pandemic, most engagement was happening offline. That was not an ideal situation. Face-to-face engagement has huge benefits and is more personable but it excludes anyone who does not have the time to attend these meetings. Opening up engagement to a wider audience is essential to get access to a more diverse pool of opinions. Since March 2020, we have seen a huge rise in digital engagement projects. Although we are very excited about this, we also wouldn’t argue that online engagement is a panacea. We also want to think alongside councils how they can engage digitally excluded residents. This is why we support a hybrid approach that combines online and offline methods. It’s important to use as many methods as possible, as each method will appeal and engage a different type of audience. By combining them, you will have better chances to not leave anyone behind in the process.
Do you have any examples of how Civic Technology has helped a community to implement real change?
There are so many different projects that councils and public organisations use our platform for. It can range from anything such as a consultation on a policy document, to the regeneration of a public space or the drafting or implementation of a strategy paper. Another favourite topic of engagement is direct feedback on council services and how they can be improved. The London Borough of Newham platform has some great regeneration examples, the Scottish Council of Stirling has a nice case of engaging the public on their climate change strategy, and the Care Quality Commission often turns to the public or service providers to gather feedback on their policies.
How can governments ensure there are as few obstacles to getting involved in local politics as possible?
It’s important to keep it simple and impactful. By simple, I mean that processes have to be easy to access and use. The messaging has to be clear and formulated in a digestible way, and where possible the content has to be interactive. The combination of these should make residents want to engage and feel included – they must feel that you are talking to them. In terms of impact, it is again all about closing the loop. I think that the main reason why people don’t want to take part in the process is because they don’t understand how their feedback matters. If councils can clearly explain how they implement resident feedback, that will definitely drive levels of engagement up.
Do you feel civic technology is becoming more widely accepted? Are there any areas/locations that still remain challenging?
Definitely – If there is a silver lining to the pandemic in our space, it is that local governments didn’t have much of a choice but to turn their attention to digital tools. They are now much more open to the opportunities that they offer, not only now but also in the post-pandemic setting. I think that governments can sometimes be a little bit scared of tech and whether they will be able to use it properly and justify the cost. That is a valid concern but with the right support and ambitions, there shouldn’t be much to worry about it. Ultimately governments need to use the tools that residents themselves use and digital methods to connect are definitely up there!
Where do you expect CitizenLab to be in five years time?
I wouldn’t want to speculate too much about the future of our company as a whole as that is probably a question for our senior management. I can however tell you about my vision for CitizenLab UK. Over the next five years I see our structure growing so that we can build and expand a strong community of users (councils and public organisations) who can learn from each other and inspire one another.
Do you think that the recent local elections have triggered a wider conversation around the importance of local councils and democracy?
Maybe it is just a personal observation but I do feel like the local elections this year were covered more widely than in the past. We now know that a few areas voted differently than they had in the past (Hartlepool voting Conservative for example) and that independent candidates gathered quite a few votes as well. I think this shows that residents will let their candidates know when they aren’t happy with the status quo. In itself, this is already a conversation around democracy and I’m hopeful that this energy and interest in participation keeps going beyond the election cycle so that we see a higher level of involvement in local decision-making. The next few years will tell!