Our cities are becoming increasingly more technological in nature, but somehow, digital participation isn’t always growing accordingly. What are the main barriers to citizen participation?

Recently, SmartCitiesWorld published the findings of its latest research. This report stated that only 10% of public sector organisations (cities, local authorities, public transport operators, etc.) and no private sector organisations said they are doing “very well” with citizen engagement. Of both types of organisations, 1/3rd admitted they were “doing enough but could do more.”

What’s remarkable about this is that both types of organisations did acknowledge the worth and importance of citizen participation. So if the value of participation is not up for debate, what are the reasons for the lack of citizen engagement in these organisations?

As described in this article, there are a couple of concerns that seem to block the implementation of participation projects. Let’s take a look at these barriers and see where we can provide answers and solutions.

33% fears that citizens will demand things they can’t deliver

When launching a citizen participation project, managing expectations is vital. Every participation project requires open and transparent communication and the establishment of a bond of trust between citizens and local administrations. If all parties involved know the rules of the game up front, there’s no need to fear outrageous citizen ideas.

Time to put your cards on the table! Clearly explain what the project is about and what its ultimate goal is. It’s also important to state what you expect from citizens and what the criteria will be to evaluate their input.

22% fears that not enough citizens will participate

The most important thing about your digital participation platform is that citizens actually use it. A citizen platform without citizens is useless, agreed. But luckily, we live in a digital age! Citizens have the world in their pocket, and that means there are a lot of things you can do to lead them to your platform and boost engagement.


In order to reach as many citizens as possible and reflect a wide array of voices within your community, opt for a combination of 3 key channels: emailing, direct traffic, and social media. Make sure that your platform is easily findable in search engines, send e-mail updates to your citizens, and promote the platform on social media (this also works if you have little to no campaigning budget).

These efforts can have a tangible effort on participation rates. Cities which have CitizenLab platforms report that on average, 15% of their inhabitants visit the platform.

17% fears that involving citizens is too expensive

Cost is a common argument against citizen participation, but is participation really that expensive? Sure, the acquisition and set-up of a digital platform (or an offline participation project) require an initial investment. But as it turns out, a lack of participation can actually be more expensive.

Citizen participation ensures that policies are made according to citizens’ wants, needs and priorities. And that, in turn, ensures in more impactful decision-making and funding of projects that truly matter for the community.

Including the cost of the yearly license, employees and additional communication costs, an engagement on a CitizenLab platform costs around 2.50€. An engagement can be a like, a comment or an idea posted. This is almost 8 times less than input traditionally gathered through town hall meetings. If you’re curious about the true cost of participation, head to this in-depth article. Also, we’ve written a step-by-step guide about launching a successful participation project, even if you’re on a budget.

75% vs 25%: the tech gap

As cities are focusing more on technological innovation and “smarter” tech solutions, their view on the need for citizen participation evolves as well. But as it turns out, those views do not always align perfectly.

According to the SmartCitiesWorld study, “3/4 of public sector respondents and all private sector respondents said that citizen engagement becomes more important as cities push to become smarter using technology. However, 1/4 of public sector responses disagreed and said that technology doesn’t increase the need for public input.”

Whether technological innovation raises the need for more participation is up for debate, but what we know for sure is that technological innovations, like artificial intelligence and the surge of NLP (natural language processing), have transformed citizen participation projects. Over the last few years, these advancements have made it increasingly easier to process large samples of citizen input and extract helpful demographic insights from these data. Take a look at how we applied AI and NLP to our Youth4Climate case, for example.

The data debacle

In our digital age, the use of citizen data and the topic of privacy are sensitive questions. If citizens feel their data is misused, this can prevent them from participating. According to the study, public sector respondents’ biggest obstacle to doing more with data is a lack of the necessary skills and tools. For the private sector, the concern is mainly privacy. Both are legitimate concerns, because the data debacle is a very important issue these days, and citizen data should be protected as much as possible.

But rather than it being a threat to privacy and data protection, a participation platform can be a way to communicate with citizens. As always, a lot can be solved with clear communication. Always communicate with your citizens about why you are using their data and what you are going to use it for.

Are you interested in setting up a participation platform? Contact us today to see what participation in your city could look like.

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