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Updated: November 6, 2010 21:22 IST

Citizen engagement in city’s policy-making

D. Murali
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In the otherwise dreary world of government policy and decision-making, it is possible to have an ‘Oasis,’ one learns from the example of Oh Se-hoon, the mayor of Seoul.

Creativity in administration

‘Oasis’ is the name of an online suggestion platform that he launched in October 2006 to ‘enhance creativity and imagination in administration,’ as Venkat Ramaswamy and Francis Gouillart narrate in ‘The Power of Co-Creation’ (Free Press).

Its genesis, as the authors trace, was an intranet initiative dubbed Creative Seoul Project Headquarters, where the mayor encouraged civil servants to suggest ideas on three topics, viz. improvement of working practice, encouragement of citizens’ participation, and transparent city administration.

“More than 3,000 ideas per month were suggested in the first year and evaluated by the Seoul Development Institute. The institute forwarded the best ideas to the relevant civil servants. The performance evaluation system for city employees, which previously had been based on seniority, was revamped to include a merit rating system that included enactment of ideas from the intranet.”

Ten Million Imaginations

The new portal that opened up the idea process to citizen engagement at large was named ‘Ten Million Imaginations’ as a reference to the population of Seoul. If that sounds ambitious, the actual results can be stunning: Between the launch and May 2009, more than 4.25 million citizens visited the platform (oasis.seoul.go.kr) and submitted more than 33,000 ideas, or an average of more than 1,000 ideas a month.

Rather than be a static suggestion system, which most of our ‘suggestion boxes’ and ‘feedback’ mechanisms are, Oasis engaged citizens, civic servants, and public enterprise – the three key constituencies – in a dynamic engagement through all its phases, the book reports.

The first phase is of ‘ideas and suggestions’ when any citizen can suggest any idea to improve policies. “The Seoul city government uses these inputs to understand civic needs and gauge citizens’ interest in each idea. Furthermore, when an idea is posted, the relevant city department is notified and it is its duty to comment on the idea’s feasibility.”

Consolidation of similar ideas

Online discussion is the second phase, with a select group of pre-qualified participants, including policy experts, civil servants, and a volunteer Citizen Committee assessing and developing the ideas. Citizens are qualified for the committee based on their participation in the Oasis process, from idea submission to review and discussion, through a point system, the authors inform.

“The Citizen Committee has six subgroups: economics, culture, transportation, environment, well-being, and citizens. As of 2009, there were more than 450 members, with membership being renewed every six months.”

More than 10 per cent of ideas move from the first phase to the second, with Oasis consolidating similar ideas at this point. The book cites the example of how in one of the rounds citizens responded to ‘Bicycle Friendly Plan’ of the Government (October 2008) with 741 ideas related to a better bicycle environment, including 145 for bicycle-only lane construction, 237 on improving bicycle lanes, and 139 on better maintenance of bicycle lanes.

Developing ideas into policies

In the third phase of Oasis, an offline preliminary examination evaluates selected ideas based on feasibility and citizens’ response. “About 40 ideas per month get to this phase. The top levels of city government take part in a brainstorming process to develop the ideas into policies… After the discussion, the city government holds a working level meeting to decide on feasible ideas to be brought to the final policy adoption meeting. About seven ideas make it through this stage, on average.”

An exciting finish is the fourth phase of the engagement process, the Seoul Policy Adoption meeting, a live public event bringing together about 200 people, including the idea provider, Citizen Committee members, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), external experts, citizens, and the city’s top officials. “The meeting is chaired by the mayor and broadcast in real time over the Internet.”

The authors mention an example from a recent such meeting when Kang, a citizen, had suggested adding English subtitles to Korean films, and had related how the idea came to him from his experience as a visitor in other countries. “In India and Japan, he looked for a cinema with English subtitles without success, and he felt isolated as a foreigner and disappointed. Kang thought that subtitling Korean films in English would not only be attractive to Korea’s 5 million tourists and help them appreciate Korean culture, but would also help in expanding the export of Korea’s entertainment and pop culture around the world.”

Due date and progression bar

The book reports that, as of May 2009, more than 75 ideas had been adopted through the Oasis programme, with more than 50 of them completed and implemented, be they about ‘free baby carriages and wheelchairs in parks,’ or ‘narrowing of gratings of drain covers.’ Ideas that are adopted get awarded about $100, and there are further awards for creativity, ranging from $500 to $3,000.

Interestingly, the site has posts on ideas not adopted, along with an explanation and details on any alternative policies, and as for adopted ideas, ‘a due date and progression bar showing percentage of completion.’

While other ‘e-government’ systems around the world tend to focus on citizens’ complaints, usually on a one-off basis, Oasis enables continuous administrative reform, enhancing the image of civil servants and improving citizens’ trust in government at large, conclude Ramaswamy and Gouillart.

Imperative read.

**

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