Why digitalisation within government should always be about community, clear communication and inclusion
This article by Emily McDonnell was featured in The Beam #10 – Local Heroes of the Energy Transition. Subscribe now to read more on the subject.
“People make a decision about whether to move or to stay in a city. It’s my job to convince them Monheim is the best place to live.”
We’re sipping coffee with Daniel Zimmermann, the mayor of Monheim am Rhein, discussing digital citizen participation and the importance of local communities. At the time of his election, he was the youngest mayor in North Rhine-Westphalia in Germany, and he has large ambitions for his city. As an example, he will make public transportation free for all citizens before spring 2020, with the aim of reducing carbon emissions in the city.
Zimmermann and his team of city councillors have dived in at the deep end. The city is very progressive with digitalisation in general, and they’re now experimenting with numerous smart and digital systems in order to improve citizens’ relationship to their city.
The reason for our visit was to undertake workshops with Zimmermann and the city’s citizen participation department to help them optimise the use of their Civocracy platform, which already has over 300 active users and 90 comprehensive submitted ideas. From these, it is incredibly transparent that citizens are concerned by topics relating to climate and sustainability, and proposals submitted include requesting that pesticides are banned throughout the city, that buses are all converted to use electricity, and that supermarkets are required to participate in zero-food-waste.
Zimmermann, who reads each submitted proposition, has already been impressed by his citizens’ ideas. “One citizen has proposed that we adapt our pedestrian traffic lights to be the shape of the ‘goose girl’ (the girl from our city’s coat of arms). It is a funny idea, but one that we want to implement. There was also a very good idea to build a new cycle path connecting the south of the city to the train station, and this is now in development. Our citizens are quite creative, and we want to use this creativity.”
Local democracy is a powerful thing when done properly; transparency and good communication being core pillars. “I’m a great fan of local democracy,” Zimmermann tells us, “because it’s so much easier to communicate with all your citizens. I couldn’t imagine how in national governments you can keep this bond with all the people who are interested in participating. And in my opinion, being engaged at the local level is the best way to learn about democracy and consensus-building.”
In order to develop and nurture a strong local democracy, and generate true satisfaction in communities, we’re told that there are three core elements:
1. Genuine participation opportunities
2. Well-informed decisions
3. Frequent and open communications
The use of digital tools shouldn’t be so daunting, as this is the natural progression within a democracy. “I don’t see any specific reason why you should be anxious about the use of new technologies which simply enhance your work processes because as a mayor or a local politician you’re always facing your citizens. But I cannot be at all places in the city at the same time, and the same goes for the other 40 city councillors. There may be people we didn’t hear or didn’t listen to as much as others, and the Civocracy digital citizen participation platform gives us the possibility to involve these people in decision-making processes.”
“In my opinion, cities are competing with each other. Each has its own schools, cultural events, public transportation services etc, and so it’s my job to develop the most attractive place to live. So providing citizens with a way to express themselves by offering a digital citizen participation platform is one bonus point that may convince people Monheim is the right place to be.”
Zimmermann and his team are reaping the rewards of digitisation. Their active encouragement of consensus building and project co-creation on the online platform has already produced initiatives that are currently being implemented.
For instance, citizens of Monheim were concerned about the decline of the bee population and proposed that the city take action to counter this. As a result, the city provides citizens with the opportunity to plant bee-friendly flowering plants throughout the new 500sqm ‘bee pasture’, distributing plants to citizens at events where experts share tips on how to create balcony gardens suitable for the insects. Additionally, as a result of their citizens’ concern for the environment, Monheim will add green roofs and biodiverse areas to numerous existing city buildings.
Monheim is leading the way in developing more inclusive cities. And the path is a straightforward one: put citizens at the centre, and show them their voices have an impact.
Emily McDonnell is the Head of Communications and Partnerships at Civocracy, a CivicTech organisation focused on digital citizen participation.