‘Engagement plus digital’: are new digital tools failing citizen engagement?

New digital tools may fail to achieve the effectiveness and aims of citizen engagement, finds Canadian study.

Government-led engagement should respond to the unfolding social and political landscape of the digital era, argues Justin Longo in ‘The evolution of citizen and stakeholder engagement in Canada, from Spicer to #Hashtags’.

Tracing landmark cases across three decades, Longo finds that federal engagement exercises have supported traditional engagement with digital tools, but struggle to tap into digital capabilities. Reconceiving engagement systems in the digital age may call for revisiting notions of engagement, suggests the study, as it cautions against the shortfalls of the ‘engagement plus digital’ approach.

The new digital environment expands opportunities for citizen engagement. But the variety and volume of content creates new expectations and pressures for governments looking to communicate with citizens. Overlooking the social outcomes of digital advancement, too, could hamper the effectiveness and legitimacy of engagement.

In his study, Longo outlines major challenges facing online engagement:  

  • The economics of attention: Capturing attention of Internet users in a digital environment inundated by messages is difficult and expensive. Governments may need to rethink their convening power.
  • Expectations of citizens and stakeholders: For over a decade, Internet users have experienced benefits, recognition, and feedback using online services. Governments need to consider whether incentives for engagement foster participation and representativeness.  
  • The challenge of evaluating the volume of contributions: Engagement processes must analyse the content generated by participants. Evaluation has to address the scale and complexity of responses enabled by digital channels.
  • The elusive nature of consensus: In addition to dealing with higher volumes of contributions, online engagement may also have to address a wider range of perspectives. This increased diversity of ideas may make consensus difficult to achieve.  

In conclusion, the study indicates further avenues for research to make engagement more transparent, participatory, collaborative and reflective of participants in new digital age.

Justin Longo is Assistant Professor and Cisco Research Chair in Digital Governance, Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, University of Regina.

Photo: Eduardo Zárate/Flickr

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