When it comes to citizen participation, cost is often the elephant in the room. It is often cited as one of the main barriers for cities and local governments hesitant to launch participation projects. Large scale projects involving thousands of citizens must surely be incredibly costly, right? Well… not always.

The cost of not involving citizens

Participation projects can of course be costly, but it’s essential to keep in mind that a lack of participation can actually come at a much greater cost. In other words, an efficient citizen participation project will help cities save money in the long term!

  • Including citizens in decision-making means that cities base decisions on reliable information. They get a better understanding of what citizens need, and are able to allocate resources accordingly. Not consulting citizens can lead cities to making unnecessary investments, and failing to address the most pressing issues. For instance, should a city faced with a heavy traffic problem fix the roads or increase public transportation? Citizen consultation can help make the right investment.
  • If collected in accordance with the local regulations, data collected during a participation project can also be used in future projects. It can give a city information that goes beyond the initial remit of the question. For instance, a survey on satisfaction with the local bike paths can provide insights about the residents’ age, the means of transportation that they use, and their needs for wider infrastructure. All of these can feed into later projects and inform decisions that go beyond just bikes.
  • More participation and feelings of increased transparency increase the trust in the government and support for policy decisions. A recent study has also shown that participation has a positive effect on tax compliance. Better relationships between citizens and their local governments have tangible, positive and long-lasting effects that are worth investing for.

Hidden costs to keep in mind

When opting for digital participation, there are three costs to keep in mind besides the initial investment in the software itself.

  • Time: although digital participation is less time-consuming than physical events, digital platforms don’t run by themselves. Setting them up, managing citizen input, moderating comments and analysing contributions takes time. It also requires involvement from staff within the administration. This is an essential point of any citizen engagement project: even the best of platforms will fail if there’s no sufficient stakeholder buy-in and no internal support for the tool.
  • Communication: once the platform is up and ready to go, it’s crucial to give it the first push to increase visibility and make sure it’s used. Ideally, projects stakeholders should plan a separate budget for the launch, and invest in good communication; however, it’s also possible to communicate about a platform with limited resources (see our guide). Communication efforts shouldn’t stop at the launch. Once the project is over, it’s essential to communicate how citizen’s input is going to be used, which ideas are going to be implemented, and what the timeline looks like.
  • Background work: for major participation projects which have a decisive impact on funding allocation (such as participatory budgets), some cities have developed wealth index in order to weigh the data collected and make sure it’s representative.

Now, let’s get down to the cold, hard facts. How much does engagement cost?

The cost of traditional channels

  • Town hall meetings are as old as democracy itself. They’re the traditional way to capture feedback and give citizens a say in local policy decisions – however, they’re also a costly and time-consuming process. Town hall meetings take time to organise, require on-site staff, and have to be repeated throughout different phases of the project. Input collected from citizens during these meetings is difficult to process and share throughout the administration. What’s more, only a handful of citizens attend the meetings, meaning the input isn’t representative of the wider population’s concerns. The UK’s Government Digital Efficiency report estimates it costs the government about €16.50 per citizen contribution (approximately $18.30)
  • Some cities wishing to collect nuanced, detailed and representative feedback organise focus groups. This input can be a precious source of insights for administrations wishing to gather detailed feedback into a specific issue; however, it also remains fixed in time and the number of contributions collected is limited. The cost of focus groups can be quite steep: with participant recruitment, organisation, staff involvement, refreshments, etc., a report from the Nashville Planning Commission estimates that a focus group costs about $47 per engaged citizen (approximately €42,40).

In recent years, digital tools have brought governments new options to consult their citizens. They’ve helped bring down the cost of citizen participation by increasing the number of citizens it was possible to reach. The same study by the Nashville Planning Commission estimated that a citizen input collected via Textizen (an engagement application via text message) cost as little as $9 per input (approximately €8,10).  Of course, the nature of this input is different from input from focus groups. Citizens can give brief feedback via direct message or choose projects they want to support, but they’re less likely to give thorough feedback and can’t be pushed to elaborate. Despite these limitations, this type of consultation remains very useful to reach younger, more connected citizens who are used to texting and prefer this over physical meetings.

The cost of digital platforms

In recent years, an increasing number of governments have turned to online platforms to engage their citizens. These platforms make it easy to access large numbers of people and to collect input on a wide scale, cutting down on event organisation and recruitment costs. Cities usually purchase a yearly license, on top of which can be added special features and project management fees.

Usually, the pricing model mainly depends on two elements: the city size, and the number of features requested. CitizenLab has developed three core plans to match the most frequent requests, but we’re open to adjustments and the plan can be tailored to fit specific needs. We’re aware that whilst some cities require moderation and project management, others are happy with just the basic features. Because demographics and requirements vary from one city or government to the next, it’s difficult to define an average cost. Depending on the size and features requested, prices can range from €4.500 (approximately $5.000) for smallest municipalities on essential product plan, to the tenfold for bigger cities that need to see the platform organisation-wide deployed and integrated.

This can seem like a steep cost, but when measured against the number of users reached it seems more reasonable. Taking into account the cost of the yearly license, the time spent by employees working on the platform and additional communication costs, we estimate that engagement on the platform (this can be either a comment, a like or a vote) costs around €2.50 (approximately $2,80). This is almost 8 times less than input traditionally gathered through town hall meetings.

In addition to reducing the cost of individual actions, platforms should increase efficiency and save costs in the long term. Without integrated analysis capabilities, civil servants still spend time on tedious manual tasks, often out of the software; cost-efficacy goes down, and useful feedback gets lost in the process.

Increased efficiency is one of our main metrics of success at CitizenLab. The platform’s integrated machine-learning capabilities help civil servants process insights. Automation of the tedious tasks previously performed by hand (such as counting ideas, classifying them and grouping similar ones together) increases efficiency and saves time as well as money. In the long run, governments can attribute the resources to other projects, therefore benefitting citizens even more.

In recent years, the development of digital tools has dramatically brought down the cost of participation. Demand for citizen participation and greater transparency is growing, and participation projects are now accessible to cities of all sizes regardless of their budgets. Although citizen participation can seem quite costly up front, the long-term benefits and cost-saving outweigh the initial investment. It’s time to get started!