Civic Engagement Best Practices

The NLC and Knight Foundation studied multiple cities and their experiences with technology as it applies to civic engagement. We provide the key data points from this study as well as snippets from a new Pew Internet & American Life Project on public discourse

What Happened?
The National League of Cities and the James L Knight Foundation recently experimented with community engagement strategies in 14 cities worldwide to identify what sections of society are still participating in decision making, and where new technology can help solve problems at a local level.

So What?
In the report, researchers dug deeply into the best practices and challenges concerning citizen engagement in Detroit, Philadelphia, Chicago and Austin. The project aimed to uncover examples of how policies were changed through public discourse and the unification of diverse populations. The highest success rates for civilian-led change occurred when multiple sectors of a community participated, and the majority relied on the latest technologies to connect individuals and spread messages.

As each city experienced civic engagement and it held strong, the more economic benefits were realized as well. What the cities were challenged with was adopting engagement strategies properly scaled to the needs of the community and developing best practices to keep the energy and enthusiasm strong for prolonged periods of time.

Rules To Take Away
After analyzing the successes and failures of numerous public demonstrations and movements, the research team formulated a few rules for municipalities to follow when planting seeds for their own civic engagement efforts, including:

  • Nurture public discourse surrounding challenges and problems within the community
  • Develop initiatives that would appeal to a diverse population of participants
  • Leverage collaborative technology such as social media and cloud computing to make communication and information sharing easy
  • Formulate thorough strategies that offer several solutions to problems in both the short and long term
  • Utilize open data technology to gather insights and report on trends and patterns to better combat persistent problems

Digitizing Engagement
Another study from the Pew Internet & American Life Project discussed the many ways social networking sites and other collaborative solutions have helped strengthen civic engagement and public discourse to help drive change. According to a national survey:

  • 36 percent of American adults engaged in political activity via social networks during the 2012 presidential campaign
  • 17 percent of all adults posted links to political online content from social media sites in 2012
  • 19 percent posted political-related content to their friends and followers
  • 12 percent followed or friended political candidates or figures in 2012
  • 12 percent belonged to social networking sites directly related to political or social movements
  • 48 percent of adults directly participate in civic groups or activities
  • 39 percent have contacted political officials offline
  • 34 percent contacted political officials online
  • 39 percent of adults engage in civic activities on social networking sites

Traditionally, the more affluent members of a community were most likely to participate in political or social activities when held offline. With the birth of social media, however, income level plays little role in determining who will engage in conversations or activities online. Rather, the more highly educated citizens are found to be engaging in political activities via social networks most often.

Citizen Led Success
EfficientGov has also reported on other uses of open data and collaborative technology, as well as citizen-driven efforts to improve the community.

About the author


Barry Greenfield

Barry Greenfield is the founder of