We live in an age when WikiLeaks and computer analyst whistleblower, Edward Snowden, have revealed how some national governments hide information from their constituents and carry out covert public surveillance on a grand scale.

The internet has provided the likes of WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange and Snowden the freedom and ability to embarrass governments by providing the general public instant access to reams of information politicians and other government officials wanted hidden from view.

However, while the internet was used as a tool to shame and embarrass government behemoths like Snowden’s former employer, the National Security Agency, it can be used by smaller governments, such as your humble local council, as a tool for civic engagement.

While the NSA and their like want to keep voters in the dark (often for sound national security reasons), local councils are using the internet to boost residents’ civic engagement: “knowledge, discussion, interest and participation in public affairs – in government and politics, policy issues, and the community”.  

But this local government revolution isn’t necessarily being driven through social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.

No, it’s being driven by the old humble local government website.

At least by those councils which follow some simple rules when designing and populating their websites. There are many, particularly in Australia, which are not.

It was a growing awareness amongst government of the power of the internet to engage with the public that was behind the Obama administration in the United States decision to prioritised the use of US federal websites to boost government transparency and citizen input.

At the inaugural Open Government Partnership (OGP) meeting in 2011, President Obama reiterated his belief “that the strongest foundation for human progress lies in open economies, open societies, and in open governments”.

The US worked both domestically and internationally to ensure global support for Open Government principles “to promote transparency, to fight corruption, to energize civic engagement, and to leverage new technologies in order to strengthen the foundations of freedom in our own Nation”.

This manifested in the successful launch of We the People, the White House petitions platform that gives Americans a direct line to voice their concerns to the Administration via online petitions. In the first two years, more than 10 million users generated more than 270,000 petitions.

The same principles apply at the local government level.

The development of the internet has changed dramatically the way government interact with the people.

It has provided opportunities for greater political participation, more open and transparent government, improved citizens’ access to information and services online and enhanced communication between residents and government via email and blogs.

It has also allowed local councils to easily disseminate information about volunteer efforts, neighbourhood groups, or other civic initiatives.

It has helped drive civic engagement.

The University of Illinois at Chicago’s College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs conducted a content analysis study of the websites of the 20 largest cities in Illinois and the 75 largest cities in the US and ranked them according to features that could be expected to encourage civic engagement.  

Each website was scored according to how well each presented the following categories:

  • Contact information
  • Organizational information
  • Processes and regulations
  • Neighbourhood information
  • Policy & performance documents
  • Offline participation information
  • Online interactivity & participation
  • Transparency & accessibility

Contact information
Contacting officials has long been tracked as a form of political participation, and the availability of email and contact information online has improved the convenience of citizen-initiated contacts.  

Organisational information
Two of the most important preconditions for civic engagement are citizen awareness and knowledge of various aspects of government – what government does and who does what. 
This enables citizens to request services, complain, and share their views regarding community issues and council policies.

Three crucial pieces of information are:

  1. Details on the duties and functions of elected officials; 
  2. Organisational structure (either as a graphic or a central list of departments); and
  3. A description of the activities of council departments on the main web page.   

Processes and regulation
Knowledge about government processes is necessary for participation.  

Information on processes and regulation should include:

  • How budgets, capital plans, and laws are made;
  • How citizen initiatives or referenda work;
  • Municipal codes;
  • Material on council meetings (agendas, minutes, online videos, podcasts, background on  issues);
  • Other current government policies and regulations; and
  • Information on voting and elections.

Neighbourhood information
Civic engagement often occurs at the neighbourhood level, with local residents becoming involved in local schools, or in volunteer efforts in their immediate surroundings.

Councils can encourage residents to become knowledgeable about their local area by providing information on neighbourhood characteristics such as demographic information, local economic condition, business information, or maps).   

Further, city websites may feature information on neighbourhood-related issues (such as affordable housing and safety).

Policy and performance information
Transparency is an important feature of government online.  Residents are better prepared to hold government accountable for its actions when they can find information on policies and track government performance.

The University of Illinois researchers highlight a number of policy and performance documents online that boost transparency including budgets; background information on budgets; press releases; text or  video of major speeches by the mayor, manager or council leadership; capital improvement plans;  explanations of the plan; financial audit reports; and agency annual performance reports.

Information for offline participation
Knowledge, discussion, interest and participation in the local community is a key element of civic engagement and encouraging volunteering is key. 

Local councils can publicize charity events, volunteer opportunities, or the need for donations to charities or non-profits.  They can highlight local groups through either information or links to council-sponsored citizen organizations and other neighbourhood-oriented organizations, and non-profits or charities. 

These can include the development of community gardens; bush regeneration programs; or volunteering in council libraries or animal shelters.

Online interactivity & participation
The digital space has become an important tool through which citizens express their views about politics, policy and community.

Twitter and Facebook are crucial platforms for such discussions; though it is important the local councils closely monitor activity and respond speedily to queries and criticisms.

Other areas of interactivity include downloadable forms, online transactions, citizen surveys, online newsletters or email updates, downloadable information, searchable databases, online comment forms or message boxes, RSS feeds, discussion boards, virtual town hall meetings, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter links.

Transparency and accessibility
A Council website can have all the best information in the world but if it is not easily found it will do little to boost civic engagement.

Information should always be up-to-date and accessible to people from non-English-speaking backgrounds and/or with disabilities.

Unfortunately many Australia local council websites, while rich in much of the resources discussed above, are poorly designed and cluttered and busy in their presentation, with numerous links that are presented in at times illogical order and priority.

An example of a good Australian local government website is Penrith City Council in Sydney’s outer west. It’s design is clean and simple with the number of links kept to a minimum with drop-down menus.

The most commonly searched for information is presented under six ‘I WANT TO …’ links:

  • Check on my development;
  • Search the Library Catalogue
  • Hire a Hall
  • Look for Jobs
  • Pay my rates or sundry debt
  • Find community services

While I (thankfully) haven’t visited every local government website on the planet, one that has achieved praise in the UK is Maidstone Borough Council. It borders on almost boring for its simplicity but wins for its utility. Other councils could do worse than follow its example: