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civic engagement

Last year, 50,000 Vietnamese citizens protested on Facebook after the City of Hanoi cut down 500 enormous trees without consulting the public. In response to the outcry, the city halted the cutting—and even planted new saplings along several city boulevards to replace the trees that had been leveled.

This interaction is an interesting illustration of how social media gives citizens a voice. Had city officials proactively solicited citizen comments before implementing their tree-cutting plan, they could have determined whether the majority of residents believed those trees should have been kept in place. And perhaps they could have prevented the outcry and the backtracking that followed.

Increasingly, governments around the world are developing e-participation strategies for just these reasons. With tools ranging from website portals to social media tools to e-town halls, governments can work far more interactively with citizens than was possible in the past, operating in a highly open and transparent manner.

One of several organizations to develop an e-participation index, the United Nations defines three stages of e-participation maturity. The first is providing citizens with access to information. The second is gathering citizen feedback on policies and services. And the third is working interactively with citizens to co-design policies and services.

In the 15 years since the UN began ranking countries’ e-participation, the movement has been growing. For example, Qatar has launched an easy-to-use portal that allows residents, businesses, and visitors to do everything from paying traffic violation fees to registering new businesses online to obtaining restaurant recommendations from locals. France recently crowdsourced the development of a new digital law, drawing comments and votes from more than 20,000 citizens and organizations. And the United Arab Emirates connected with citizens via Twitter, attracting more than 82,000 ideas for how to develop the country’s health and education sectors.

Efforts such as these have greatly increased citizen participation. But the question is where should a government start? To be successful, governments need to create a strategy that defines their citizen engagement goals at various stages of maturity. Initially, this might involve setting up a one-stop portal that provides information, forms, open data, and online services to citizens. At the next level, it might include taking advantage of public-facing channels such as Facebook and Twitter to interact with citizens on key issues. Eventually, it could involve using videoconferencing and social media tools to proactively establish citizen committees to solve specific issues.

Rather than implementing a lot of communication channels and then failing to keep up with the feedback, governments should consider asking citizens and businesses how they prefer to interact. A great example is the United Arab Emirates, which polled citizens through its website and found that they prefer communicating through Twitter. Once governments choose the right channels, they should monitor how frequently those channels are used in order to hone their approach and keep it relevant over time.

Microsoft is well-positioned to help governments develop their e-participation programs. From Skype to Yammer to SharePoint to Microsoft Dynamics, we offer a broad variety of collaboration tools that promote social listening and citizen engagement. We provide cloud-based and mobile technologies that enable governments to connect with their constituents anywhere, anytime. In addition, we also have advanced analytics tools that can help governments spot and share trends with citizens, as well as evaluate their e-participation progress.

By embarking on a path toward digital transformation, governments can better engage citizens in the public process, ultimately improving their transparency and accountability. To learn more, please see our Microsoft in Government website or request one of our available trials: Azure Government Trial, Office 365 Government TrialCloud for Government Dynamics CRM Trial.