Seoul has taken advantage of its high digital-penetration rate to open several online channels for submitting ideas and issues of concern to the city government. It collects standard daily complaints about construction, housing and roads through the ‘I Want This’ platform, social media accounts and main website. (There is an ordinance requiring a three-hour response window, which is its own trust-building mechanism.) But something else has happened on platforms dedicated to deepening citizen engagement in planning and policymaking, including the public-consultation site 10 million imagination oasis / Democracy Seoul and the city’s participatory budgeting program. Members of underrepresented populations (especially women and people with disabilities) have shown up to surface issues of concern. While these platforms are still not broadly representative, they have facilitated problem-solving for neglected issues that were previously off the city’s radar, including sanitary napkins in public toilets, support for low-income and working mothers, and more.
Residents who are underrepresented in policymaking often face the greatest barriers to participation--including lack of leisure time, mobility challenges, language barriers, etc. Technology promises to open up participation more widely, but it can also reinforce unequal access in places with a large digital divide.
How Did They Do It?
Seoul’s leaders want to hear from residents, so they are continually experimenting with engagement tools to make sure that channels are accessible, that the right information is coming in, and that feedback loops are complete.
Online engagement is perhaps a no-brainer, since Seoul has an advanced IT infrastructure and a connected citizenry. There is a big-data aspect, with researchers analyzing more than 60,000 citizen complaints to identify the most salient problems. (As in many cities, transportation, safety and environment top the list.) But the metro government also seeks to generate real input and dialogue on issues affecting underrepresented or marginalized populations. Its strategies on that front include:
- Promoting issues, not platforms. The Seoul Metropolitan Government (SMG) uses its communication channels to identify neglected issues and generate creative ideas on its strategic priorities; the goal is not to rack up large numbers of hits. “We focus on promotion of issues, not the promotion of the platform,” one metro official said. “[Such as] gender and economically disadvantaged populations.” As a result, Seoul has experimented with a number of platforms which serve different purposes. The 10 million imagination oasis site, which operated from 2012-2017, was for ideation--it asked citizens to propose ideas very freely, regardless of topic, and then vote on their favorites. Ideas were forwarded to appropriate departments to be incorporated into policy whenever possible. The city redesigned the platform in 2016 in partnership with Parti, a group of civic technologists. Democracy Seoul launched in 2017 with a new direction of gathering and ranking concrete problems or inconveniences, along with potential solutions. The site also allows the city to poll users on specific policy issues, such as a ban on plastic straws, mandatory helmets for cyclists, and new emissions regulations. Separately, the mVoting app that was developed for online policy input is often used for instant polling during in-person meetings, to quickly get feedback from participants who may be inhibited from speaking publicly. The city also collects citizen complaints through the Eungdapso public-input web portal and a telephone hotline; data show that such complaints are overwhelmingly about construction and housing issues. Finally, Seoul runs an annual offline policy expo to gather input in person. This annual event takes place in front of City Hall and several other locations throughout Seoul. The ideas with the greatest potential to improve lives are eligible to win the ‘Seoul Creativity Award.’ A few policies or projects are then put to citizens for a vote. In 2017, the projects were a daily supply kit for households with newborns, a public pet cemetery, expansion of non-smoking streets, universal emotional-health services, and transportation subsidies for households without cars.
- Narrow-casting to specific audiences. For online engagement, Metro officials target relevant audiences, rather than audiences that are representative of the city as a whole. “I think we have to draw the people who are seriously interested and affected by specific issues,” said one metro official. “[For example,] working mothers have a hard time because of lack of support and social infrastructure. When we devise related policies, we do not have to ask all the people; we have to approach the people actually affected by the problem.” As with participatory budgeting, online tools are seen as a way to productively engage civil society groups in particular--given their knowledge and expertise--in policy discussions.
- A real value proposition for users. Although there is still progress to be made on closing feedback loops, officials recognize that success is ultimately not about engagement, it’s about results. “We have to make sure that we are trusted, then the citizens come up with ideas and the government has to show that we can realize ideas,” one metro official said. “Then the platform can flourish.”
How Is It Going?
Ideas submitted by citizens via various channels have been adopted as policy, including the placement of sanitary napkins in public toilets, which has been piloted and is gradually expanding, and providing a ‘mother box’ to new parents, with everything a newborn needs. (Finland has been running this program for 75 years.)
Users also provide new perspectives on policy, sometimes closing the gap between civil servants and residents. For example, when an environmental division wanted to impose new emissions restrictions on all cars and trucks to address air pollution from microdust, it posted a question on Democracy Seoul. Commenters noted that many drivers of older cars depend on those cars for their livelihood and cannot afford to upgrade or replace them.
According to metro officials, asking citizens for concrete problems and potential solutions (via Democracy Seoul) has encouraged more active participation than the original ‘blue sky’ ideas platform, which may have been daunting for laypeople.
Civil society as intermediary. Several interviewees for this project noted that civil society activist groups are more knowledgeable about social issues and can closely relate to residents’ lived experience. Therefore, partnerships that unite the expertise and energy of civil society with the resources and reach of government can be very powerful. This may mean that an online platform that only engages a few dozen or a few hundred users is still valuable, if they are the right users. As one metro official put it, “NGOs should identify social issues and make the government understand those issues. Democracy Seoul is a platform that reaches NGOs and helps us to be more mutually beneficial.”
Engaging citizens in implementation. A digital-policy researcher noted that citizens are proposing ideas but are not involved in the execution and evaluation of projects. The metro government’s next challenge may be thinking about how to use technology for citizen participation throughout the project life cycle, she said. But that also raises larger issues around citizens’ willingness to engage. “Seoul citizens are migratory, so citizens are very vocal about serious inconveniences,” the researcher said. “They report complaints via communication channels. However, the citizens are not [as] willing to build community and take voluntary actions. That aspect is not so strong among citizens.”