If you build government digital services, you likely feel strongly that services should be tested and reviewed by end users. And perhaps you’ve also experienced a sinking feeling upon realizing that a particular set of voices was missing from your public input process. For now, we’re going to focus on one nebulous category: youth.
When youth engagement is done well, it can create digital government champions who will continue to partner with the public sector and will spread the word about effective government services. If done poorly or half-heartedly, we risk creating disillusionment that may never be reversed.
According to the OECD Recommendation of the Council on Digital Government Strategies, digital government refers to “the use of digital technologies, as an integrated part of governments’ modernization strategies, to create public value”. This includes the use of technology to deliver services and information to residents as well as the ongoing modernization of government systems to respond to emerging technologies and rising expectations from end users. Let’s use residents, rather than citizens, in an attempt to include everyone who needs to access government services, while recognizing that residents is also an imperfect term.
For this discussion, we’ll define youth as being between the ages of 18-35. While terms like “youth” or “young people” may be used to describe this massive segment, it is important to underscore that youth are not a monolith. They encompass a broad group of folks with intersectional identities which impact how they experience of government services. A process for getting a driver’s license may be painless for an able-bodied cisgender person in a suburban area, but completely fail a newcomer with mobility challenges in an urban area, for example.
Digital government professionals should be looking to do more than just check a box; engagement efforts need to be meaningful and create a sense of ongoing reciprocity. Meaningful engagement builds and solidifies trust by reinforcing that the needs and concerns of residents are driving digital service delivery.
Sherry R. Arnstein’s Ladder of Citizen Participation provides a visual representation of the gradations of resident engagement and involvement. The higher the rung of the ladder, the greater the amount of power that residents hold. If you’ve attended an open house for a forthcoming condo development in your neighbourhood, perhaps you’ve experienced one of the rungs known as tokenism: placation, consultation or even just informing. The strategies recommended below aim to be partnerships. In our context, the partnership level results in digital government services that are created, implemented and maintained by public servants, but decisions are driven by the results of extensive and ongoing public consultation.
Building trust amongst youth is an excellent way to ensure buy-in for future digital government initiatives. Meaningful engagement during the design phase of services can nourish future engagement while also contributing to a more effective digital service. The first of many steps in this direction is for our digital leaders to recognize the size and gravity of this looming challenge, and that youth want to harness their ambitions to change the world and need support with tools to empower them to focus on local engagement. Winning their trust will require a digital plan to include more young people and listen more closely to their concerns. Finding ways to engage with youth to increase the benefit they provide to communities is paramount, now.
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Image Credit: Zoey Li / Midjourney
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