Empowering citizens for positive change

14 August 2013 | Joel Cherkis, General Manager, Worldwide Government

How do you get citizens to help create the communities they want—rather than looking to government to do it? Is that even possible?

The answer to the second question is an emphatic “yes,” and the proof is…  garbage.

Twenty years ago, recycling was a rarity, and we paid the price in the form of overflowing landfills. Today, most municipalities have some sort of recycling program to give used resources a second life. It’s an effort that depends on citizen participation yet requires minimal government support.

I’ve been thinking about this since reading an inspiring essay by Matthew Taylor, “Citizens: The untapped resource,” which explores the role citizens can play as innovators and co-producers of services rather than simply as consumers. Taylor, chief executive of the London-based nonprofit Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, connects the dots between garbage collection and citizen-driven change. He notes that in 1997, only five percent of household waste in Britain was recycled or composted. By 2009, that figure had ballooned to 40 percent.

That’s huge. As citizens step up and take more responsibility, they not only reduce the burden on local municipalities but, thanks to their recycling efforts, create positive downstream benefits for the environment as well. Even if most people don’t give it much thought, their participation in recycling suggests a promising path that other public services could follow.

Closing the gap between aspiration and action

This bodes well for a sustainable future—as long as we can close the gap between our aspirations and our actions. Here’s what I mean by that.

I think we can generally agree that we all want great schools, safe neighborhoods, and a healthy environment. We often look to government for those types of outcomes, creating what Taylor calls a “social aspiration gap.” According to Taylor, “the assumption tends to be that these are outcomes that the state should provide as entitlements. As the gap between what we want and expect and what is affordable grows, this way of thinking has to change.”

Government, of course, is essential to creating sustainable communities. But in reality, it’s up to us citizens to set expectations for the kind of community we want, and take action to make it a reality.

For example, in my life outside of Microsoft, I’m an “outdoors” person, so I volunteer as a commissioner for my local Parks and Trails Commission. It’s a great fit for me personally, gets me out of the office, and gives me a way to contribute my time and energy to something I care about. More than anything, it shows that taking action can be fun and rewarding—for me and for my community.

Taylor’s article really got me thinking about this type of citizen participation and how it leads to more productive government and more connected communities. Current and developing technologies, coupled with inclusive policy, can help narrow the “aspiration gap” by giving citizens a way to participate in creating the communities they want to live in.

App drives change in the streets

Case in point: a recent blog post by my colleague David Burrows—Help your citizens help themselves—discusses a popular app called Love Clean Streets. This U.K.-based app makes it easy for citizens to pitch in by reporting safety hazards, graffiti, abandoned vehicles, and other problems directly to local authorities. They can then track progress on the issue with a mobile device. Like recycling, it’s a crowd-sourced solution that empowers individual citizens to make positive changes in their community.

There’s no shortage of other great ideas for boosting civic engagement. And when public service strategies can put those ideas into practice and inspire average people to join in, everybody wins.

Have a comment or opinion on this post? Let me know @Microsoft_Gov. Have a question for the author? Please e-mail us at ongovernment@microsoft.com.

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Joel Cherkis
General Manager, Worldwide Government