The power of community engagement

The power of community engagement
Wietse Van Ransbeeck
Wietse Van Ransbeeck, co-founder of CitizenLab

Making your voice heard within your community is not always been the easiest. With a number of local governments still relying on traditional meetings, or pen-and-paper communications to allow the public to voice their issues or concern. CitizenLab saw an opportunity and created a digitalised community engagement platform designed to connect with residents, engage them in decision-making, and build trust through dialogue. Talking with CitizenLab co-founder Wietse Van Ransbeeck, we hear about recent business developments and what the future may hold.

Could you give us an overview/summary of CitizenLab, your role and what encouraged you to co-found the company? 

“CitizenLab is a civic tech company on the mission to make public decision-making more inclusive, participatory, and responsive. We provide governments with an engagement platform to easily consult their community and give them a say on the topics they care about. CitizenLab is being used by 300+ governments worldwide today, ranging from small municipalities and large cities to federal governments.”

“I founded CitizenLab about five years ago, together with my two co-founders, Aline Muylaert and Koen Gremmelprez. As engaged millennials, we were looking for easy accessible ways to get involved in our city and make our voice heard, but couldn’t really find how to participate. Attending a town hall meeting on a Tuesday night at 8pm isn’t what you’re looking most forward to. That’s why we created a digital platform to make it easy for people to get in touch with their governments and discuss ideas, wherever and whenever they want.” 

Following the pandemic, are you finding that more people/governments/leaders are open to the concept of civic technology?

“Absolutely. We have seen many governments starting to adopt digital tools to organise community participation.” 

“What struck us most at the start of the pandemic was that so many governments were still relying on traditional public meetings. Suddenly, they were all scratching their heads wondering how they could still guarantee democratic continuity despite the lack of in-person public meetings. That’s why we decided to bring a “face-to-face” meeting component onto our digital platform, too. We developed an online workshops module which allows governments to organise public meetings online, similar to Zoom calls visually, yet with all the tools built in to facilitate these meetings efficiently and to capture input in a structured way that lends itself to post-meeting action. The town hall meeting has been brought online, which we can only applaud – with it comes greater transparency and the opportunity for more residents to participate. Almere, in the Netherlands, has run over 20 workshops with their community since we launched the feature, and have even used it for topics you wouldn’t typically associate with digital participation: engaging the elderly on how to improve welfare and support.” 

“At the same time, we’ve seen a general awareness grow on the topic of community inclusion. A lot of local governments recognize the benefits of digital engagement -for instance,  people can participate on their own time regardless of work schedules or personal obligations – but they’re also increasingly aware of limitations stemming from the digital divide. We’ve been really inspired by places like Lancaster, in the United States, which blend online and offline engagement methods to reach more of their diverse community. By updating their traditional methods – for instance, by partnering with the public housing authority – and adding in a digital engagement platform (plus supplementing it with things like multilingual notices and QR-code posters around the city),
Lancaster increased their participation 13x, primarily from usually under-heard communities.” 

What are the main challenges you have faced over the last 12 months? 

“With more governments in need of digital alternatives for their community engagement projects, our client portfolio saw faster growth than we could have anticipated. Because we recognize that governments need a lot of education and training on digital participation, as it’s often totally new to them, we have a team of participation experts who are quite hands-on with our clients to help build their capacity so with this growth we realized we needed to do more capacity-building within governments. Seeing this as essential to making participatory endeavours successful, we are working on  developing an academy to spread expertise on community engagement and train civil servants.”

“Internally, the pandemic challenged us in maintaining our strong company culture, staying connected, and keeping everyone motivated. Going fully remote as a company was, and continues to be, an interesting challenge. While the  workplace has been totally redefined and we’ve all been exposed to totally new ways of working, we’ve been really honored and humbled by how flexible, collaborative, and kind our team continues to be with one another. We’ve also been able to grow internationally by opening vacancies to remote employees, helping us bring on a global team of colleagues across different countries and time zones.” 

Do you feel the need for new ways to engage in democracy has become clearer since the pandemic began?

“The model of a mere electoral democracy, in which citizenship is defined by the act of voting every 4 years, has become totally outdated. Digital technology has empowered people  around the world to make their voice heard through the internet, yet the channels haven’t always been well-designed for this to happen in the most constructive and impactful way. Luckily, we see more and more institutions developing their digital democracy platforms, creating an online public space for people from diverse backgrounds to gather and express their opinions on decisions that affect them in their daily lives.”

“However, there’s still much more work to be done. The big challenge for any digital democracy is bringing in the transformative effects of listening in real-life conversations to other perspectives. Citizens’ assemblies and the larger deliberative wave have shown us a clear way forward in recent years. The participatory democracy model of the future will be one that combines the power of digital platforms to involve many more community members  with the design of deliberative bodies to optimally tap into collective intelligence.”

Where do you hope CitizenLab will be this time next year? 

“We hope to have scaled our social impact much further, with a particular focus on being:

  • “Participatory: by creating more meaningful engagement opportunities; working beyond just the  local level (which is where a majority of our work happens today); and working  on more complex (trans-)national policy issues that require large-scale deliberation.”
  • “Responsive: by further increasing the influence residents can have on key decisions; and making those opportunities and their impact clearer by putting in place feedback mechanisms that communicate how one’s input has affected the actual decision-making process.”

What do you credit as being your biggest successes, since co-founding the business? 

“The diversity of the 300+ governments and 10,000+ projects we’ve been able to support over the past few years, all over the world. To name just a few impactful projects: a €6M participatory budget in Ghent (Belgium), co-drafting cannabis regulation in Bermuda, deliberative polls about the decolonization of public space in Nuuk (Greenland), making the city center car-free in Kortrijk (Belgium), collective urban planning in the London Borough of Newham (UK), and designing more equitable community engagement in Lancaster (PA, United States).” 

“But, we’re even more proud of having helped transition many cities into a continuous model of public participation, beyond just individual projects. Residents should be able to influence the decisions that affect them, and it’s great to see that so many governments started to make their public decision-making permanently open.”  

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