In this article, you will learn:

  • The main governance problems that local governments currently struggle with

  • Best practices for improving citizen engagement, filling public services gaps and leveraging social media

  • The advantages of technology for boosting governance and effectiveness


When you’re able to turn problems into opportunities, they become a thing of the past. Transparency, accountability and citizen engagement aren’t new problems for local governments, but the changes in society have called for different questions about how to engage citizens for the good of their communities.

As local governments struggle with budgetary constraints, nonprofits and social enterprises have sprung up to fill the gaps in social services and are becoming quite successful in the process.

Two population forces have great influence in today’s society — knowledgeable baby boomers and up-and-coming, tech-savvy millennials. Local governments need to straddle the fence and engage these diverse groups on an equal level.

Digital tools and social media are the modern way to approach governance problems. Because of the advancement of technology, nearly every problem can be solved, at least in part, by the use of digital solutions.

Improving Citizen Engagement

When things are going great, there’s not much motivation for citizens to get involved. Local government officials usually only hear from their constituents when they’ve got a problem. Citizens are motivated to get involved in their local government when they’re personally affected by something that’s going on — or something that’s not going on. Citizen engagement works best when citizens value the project they’re working on. It stands to reason that local governments can serve their communities best when they know what citizens in the community value.

Gathering data is important so that local government councils can fine-tune services based on the community’s actual needs. Collecting information is especially important when financial times are tight because it helps officials to better understand what resources are essential at all times. Needs assessments are vital to learning about the unmet and under-met needs that inform organizational and community planning efforts.

Changes in the population have had a great effect on local communities. The baby boomers are a large generation. With the increase in life expectancy, the baby boomer generation is aging and placing strains on local government resources. The aging population has much to offer in their collective knowledge and wisdom. They are valuable community resources for current businesspeople. In addition, many of them are volunteering or caring for grandchildren.

This is also a prime time to get the millennials involved in their communities, as they represent an important voice in society. Millennials also tend to be more tech-savvy, which can be a verifiable asset for communities that work to get them involved.

Rise in Nonprofits and Social Enterprises

As the economic climate has been volatile in recent years, communities are starting to shift away from public control. There is more reliance on the delivery of goods and services from private enterprises. The changes have opened up new opportunities for nonprofit organizations and social enterprise to flourish.

The need for public trash clean-up, safe neighborhoods, increased safe housing options, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, women’s shelters and more has provided private answers to public questions. In doing so, they’ve given citizens some degree of power to solve some of their own problems.

Nonprofits and social enterprises are beginning to bridge the gap between a model for public services and a profit-driven private model. The risk in not coordinating efforts well between local governments, regional governments, private entities, nonprofits and citizens leads to fragmentation of programs and services.

Leveraging Social Media

In so many ways, social media has changed the way local authorities communicate with their citizens. Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms provide two-way communication for all the local happenings.

By making a quick Facebook inquiry, citizens can find out if a boil water order has been lifted, if schools are open on a snowy day, whether fireworks celebrations are still on when it’s raining, whether they need to re-route because of an automobile accident, or whether it’s a recycling day. Getting answers that are quick, accurate and timely improves citizens’ perception of the quality of services that their community provides.

Perhaps one of the greatest recent examples of using social media to promote citizen engagement was the impromptu police lip sync challenge that quickly went viral on Facebook in 2018. The Norfolk, VA, Police Department set a high bar with their rendition of “Uptown Funk.” Officers stated that the video was a good way to show that when they go home and take off their uniform, they’re citizens like everyone else. They added that the video was a great way to bridge the gap between police officers and the community. Everyone likes to dance and the production of a fun video brought the community together.

The police lip sync battle was a perfect example of how local governments can use social media to better connect with their communities. Such new trends challenge local governments to acknowledge and address the need for professionalism across digital communication. Local government officials may soon discover new and different ways to support governance using digital means.

Using Technology to Increase Citizen Engagement

When a citizen wants information, the first place they’re likely to look is on the internet. With a Transparency Portal by iCompass, they’ll surely find your local government website and be directed to a citizen portal that’s designed just for citizen information and engagement.

iCompass provides a modern approach to solving governance problems. The portal is the best place for citizens to find council meeting dates, vacancies for citizens on boards and commissions, local events, and maybe even a video of how local government staff and officials are serving the community. The portal is also the best place for them to find board agendas, meeting minutes and other documents approved for public viewing. The portal gives citizens an opportunity to view a council meeting in real time or watch it later at their convenience.

Local governments can add sections on collaborative work with other regions, availability of nonprofit and social enterprise services, and links to social media sites. In essence, a Transparency portal is a modern solution and the local government’s direct line to the people that they serve.

Issues like greener energy, recycling, telecommuting, ride-sharing and many other new issues are developing that call for building on past developments and incorporating new services. Digital technology like an iCompass board management software program will help local governments to turn problems into opportunities and to respond quickly to the changing needs of the community.