Citizen Engagement in Public Administration

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Citizen engagement helps make a difference in the life of a community.

Citizen engagement in government involves people working together with administrations to improve communities, make a difference in the lives of others, and share valuable knowledge and resources. According to government technology facilitator Organicus, citizen engagement can be defined as, “working to make a difference in the civic life of communities and developing the combination of knowledge, skills, values and motivation to make that difference.”

In the United States, participation is a right of citizenship. Until recent decades, many citizens have not taken advantage of this opportunity. Today, however, participation is becoming more common as individuals seek to get involved. More and more local governments are soliciting and facilitating this type of involvement.

Understanding the need and the methods to work with citizens to create change is something that may not come naturally to many public administrators, especially those who have been doing their jobs for decades. Newer administrators have the advantage of being prepared in programs that understand current attitudes and trends, such as Ohio University’s online MPA. The education provided through this program can prepare candidates to broaden the scope of public administration wherever they end up working and boost citizen engagement in their organization.

Engagement vs. Participation

According to Citizenlab, an important distinction should be made between citizen engagement and participation. Both have the same goal — improving public service deliveries and policy projects. But they are not initiated by the same entities.

Citizen participation is an informal process that is driven by the citizens themselves. In this structure, citizens may show up to meetings, write letters, and do other things to make their voices heard. But they are operating on their own initiative. There is no larger organization, so efforts may be scattershot.

Citizen engagement, on the other hand, is a formal process that is facilitated by an administration. In an engaged organization, city officials encourage citizens to discuss and assess policies and contribute to projects. Tools and information are provided to citizens to make this process more streamlined and accessible.

On the face of it, fostering citizen engagement might seem to make the task of governance more difficult. But Citizenlab points out that the benefits of this approach are legion.

“Citizen engagement is a powerful democratic tool to increase accountability and transparency. Indeed, citizens who participate in the implementation of public projects trust policies and public officials more,” the site states. Moreover, by tapping directly into the knowledge of citizens, policies are more likely to address the real needs of the communities. By engaging citizens, public administrators therefore increase their ability to govern effectively.

Examples of Engagement

Citizens have countless ways to be engaged in government. In a recent article, Andrew Vaz of the American Society for Public Administration discusses three of the most important areas: elections, community policing and financial accountability.

  • Elections. Elections may be the most prominent example of citizen engagement; a democratic government cannot exist without them. Elections give citizens the power to assess the progress their elected officials have made and decide whether these members should continue. The decision to remove or place specific officials into office can change the governing direction of a nation. The greater the citizen engagement in elections, the more likely those elections are to reflect the will of the people.
  • Community policing. The concept of community policing involves law enforcement addressing issues affecting the community in a more proactive manner. It promises to solve problems in the community while creating and strengthening relationships between police and the public. It does so by identifying issues specific to a community and developing unique solutions to those problems. Over the past 20 years, criminal activity has decreased in the United States and many experts believe that community policing and citizen participation are ultimately responsible for this trend.
  • Financial accountability.S. governments, from the smallest to the largest, are required to release financial reports at various points in the annual budget cycle. Citizens can access these documents to ensure monetary directness. “Transparency allows for communication between the public and officials. It enables an informed conversation about how tax dollars are spent on programs and accountability for implementation,” Vaz explains.

Improving Engagement

With the increasing recognition of the value of citizen engagement, public agencies are tasked with boosting this metric. Although governments have many ways to get citizens involved, the website Government Technology suggests five simple ways to improve citizen engagement initiatives:

  • Provide an easy-to-use platform. Engagement should be simple. Citizens should be able to quickly retrieve data, submit forms, and find the information they need.
  • Empower citizens. Give some authority and power in the decision-making process to citizens closest to the issues, such as neighborhood groups, councils or community activists.
  • Develop a comprehensive communications strategy. A comprehensive communications strategy includes reaching out and broadcasting to citizens on a routine basis via email, SMS, social media, and advertisements, as well as door to door, at events or by hosting informational sessions.
  • Provide incentives. For citizen engagement to really work, the process needs incentives for both citizens and government employees. Incentives must align with budgetary and legal restrictions.
  • Provide sufficient staffing, resources and success metrics. Clear goals, objectives and measurements must be identified to track citizen engagement initiatives, and proper staffing and resources must be allocated to the initiative.

By following these simple steps, public agencies not only boost citizen engagement, they boost their own success as well.

About Ohio University’s Online Master of Public Administration (MPA) Program

Ohio University’s online MPA program is dedicated to preparing professionals for a career in public administration. Through the university’s prestigious Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs, students gain an overview of the scope of public administration work while building skills in policy, finance, leadership, business, management, and communications. The school occupies the No. 12 spot in the SR Education Group’s 2019 Best Online Colleges Offering MPA Programs ranking.

The program, which is 100% online, offers four concentrations: Crisis and Emergency Management, Public Leadership and Management, Non-Profit Management, or State and Local Government Management. Students can finish their degree programs in as few as two years. For more information, contact Ohio University now.


Recommended Reading:

Public Policy vs. Public Administration: How Do Public Organizations Get Things Done?

A Day in the Life of a Public Administrator

Capacity Building in the Nonprofit Sector



Civic engagement definition – Organicus

Engagement vs. participation – Citizenlab

Examples of engagement – PA Times

Improving engagement – Government Technology