Digital Culture · Public Involvement · Technology

Evolving Digital Civil Engagement Culture

During my experience working with the public during project planning over the past two decades, I have been impressed with the evolution of the culture of civic engagement.  There is a much greater focus on actively obtaining feedback from the public with the goal of developing better plans that are supported by communities (Mandarano and Meener n.d.).

In the 1960s and 1970s, federal laws and regulations were put into place that required public engagement during planning and development processes.  During this time period, the purpose of public involvement was seen as convincing communities that whatever a governmental agency was planning to do was appropriate.  For example, when the interstate system was built, primarily in the 1960s and 1970s, there was a widespread media relations campaign to persuade communities that it was in their best interest to have interstates built through the heart of their towns and cities, ripping out neighborhoods and separating people from their neighbors, stores, schools, workplaces, hospitals, and other support systems.  Today, the Federal Highway Administration engages in a robust public involvement/participation program, actively seeking feedback from citizens, and actually revising plans (sometimes substantially) based on that feedback.

Digital civil engagement has made this process even more interactive, which only serves to better the planning process and results in better projects.  In a previous blog, I have presented concerns about low-income and elderly populations being left out of the process when all public outreach is done digitally, and this is also discussed by Mandarano et al (2010).  Evans-Cowley and Hollander (2010) also note that there is a divide between those who have access to the internet and those who don’t.  With that as a caveat, I will discuss my observations about how digital public participation has added greatly to the process.

Social media and networking sites, such as Facebook, have proven to be very beneficial for both civic and governmental entities.  Governments have found that they can reach a whole new population of people on these websites.  However, Evans-Cowley and Hollander (2010) point out that there is a certain segment of the population who does not feel comfortable with these sites, so they can’t function completely on their own.  On the other hand, there is some evidence that the use of Facebook can actually boost attendance at in-person meetings (Fredericks and Foth 2013).  Crowdsourcing is a relatively new technology that appears to not be as fully accepted by planners because there is not the same vetting process for the information and it is uncertain how it can be incorporated into the development of plans.  However, the public has a vast wealth of knowledge and experience that can be harnessed by crowdsourcing, if we can just figure out how to manage it (Seltzer and Mahmoudi 2012).

It has been my experience that rather than creating a situation where the loudest and most opinionated voices are heard, digital public outreach actually somewhat levels the playing field.  I have participated in and moderated many public meetings, Community Advisory Committee meetings, Consulting Party meetings, workshops, etc., and it has been my experience that there are certain people who dominate the meeting.  If they have particularly strong opinions (e.g. this historic building may not be torn down!) then others who have other opinions (e.g. we would be willing to allow this historic building to be torn down if it meant improving a roadway so that there are fewer fatal accidents) usually feel uncomfortable speaking up.  We have received numerous comments after meetings from people who were too intimidated by their neighbors to express their opinions during the meetings.  Digital involvement also allows people to think about what they want to say in the comfort and relaxation of their homes instead of the pressure to come up with something on the spot during a meeting – an environment with which many people feel uncomfortable.  Mandarano et. al (2010) point out that they can also do so at a time that is most convenient for them.

As pointed out by Evans-Cowley and Hollander (2010), digital public engagement doesn’t work as well by itself.  They note that public hearings, which are legally required during some planning processes, generally require in-person participation.  Leighninger (n.d.) also notes that the legal framework required by many governments for public outreach aren’t conducive to digital participation.  Digital civic engagement should be one component of a well-rounded public engagement program, which will also likely include in-person meetings.  The culture of digital civic involvement appears to be creating a planning process through which people have multiple avenues to engage with planners, feel more comfortable doing so, and are able to believe that they have a real ability to influence the outcome.


Evans-Cowley, Jennifer and Justin Hollander

2010    The New Generation of Public Participation:  Internet-based Participation Tools.  Planning Practice & Research 25(3).

Fredericks, Joel and Marcus Foth

2013    Augmenting public participation:  enhancing planning outcomes through the use of social media and web 2.0.  Australian Planner, 50(3).

Leighninger, Matt

n.d.      Using Online Tools to Engage – and be Engage by – the Public.  Deliberative Democracy Consortium.

Mandarano, L. and M. Meener

n.d.      Public Participation:  A Growing Trend toward E-Participation in Planning Service.  Brief Literature Review.

Mandarano, Lynn, Muhbubur Meener, and Christopher Steins

2010    Building Social Capital in the Digital Age of Civic Engagement.  Journal of Planning Literature, 25(2).

Seltzer, Ethan and Dillon Mahmoudi

2012    Citizen Participation, Open Innovation, and Crowdsourcing:  Challenges and Opportunities for Planning.  Journal of Planning Literature 28(1).


One thought on “Evolving Digital Civil Engagement Culture

  1. Hi Barbara,

    I really enjoyed your post and appreciate what your experience brings to the table. I had not thought about the past history of public engagement, but it is interesting to show the change in public engagement and the increased transparency through the use of public engagement. Especially with current politics seeming less transparent year by year, it is nice to see how the government has used public engagement over time to become more of an active partner with the public. It is also reassuring to hear you say that government agencies do take public feedback into account.

    You experience in dealing with the “loud voices” is particularly interesting. I’m happy to hear that you think social media has created a platform for those who are too intimidated to speak in person. I have often thought that social media increases the loud voices because it gives them a position or box to stand on. I do agree with you that social media can provide more opportunity to speak but it is very important to integrate with traditional means for the reasons you mentioned such as age discrimination.



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