Defining Citizenship

The five cases on which this guide is based illustrates a shift in how city governments think about their work: from the delivery of pre-defined services to the co-production of services through impactful public engagement. Co-production is any process that directly engages constituents in the planning and implementation of services and programs.1 But as most city governments understand, co-production is more than just a choice to engage constituents in decision-making. It requires a deep understanding of what communities need and how they express themselves over time and place. Individuals and communities of all shapes and colors are inventing new ways of expressing their voice. And while some people, through organization, mobilization and struggle, have long been able to take action against or to be heard by government, as a result of a number of technological and cultural shifts, the last several years has seen a qualitative shift in methods and process both in how communities organize and mobilize, and how government listens and collaborates. According to Kathy Nyland, Director of Neighborhood Services at the City of Seattle, her department “has been involved in more policy meetings in the last eight months than in the last eight years.” Increasingly, people expect to be heard; and government is expected to listen. Frank Mirabal, Director of Collective Impact at the City of Albuquerque, put it in historical context: “Had there not been this really international discussion about citizen engagement, and if every public agency was not trying to improve their citizen engagement practices to begin with, [public engagement programs] might be nonstarters. But because of the time and the place we find ourselves where this is something that’s fortunately being prioritized across systems and jurisdictions, I think there’s a real willingness to try and incorporate [public engagement].”

“Co-production is a process that directly engages constituents in the planning and implementation of services and programs.”

New technologies have not caused this shift, but they have informed it.2 Across the board, the changing ways in which people communicate and connect with one another has diminished the role of formal institutions in everyday life: from government to civil society organizations to media. As a result, people are less likely to join civic organizations,3 like the rotary club, and people no longer source their news from only a few trusted sources—like big city newspapers.4 In addition, trust in government is at an all-time low,5 and in many cases, through networked technologies, people are able to get things done with minimal government interference. And in many instances, they can get things done better and more efficiently. While it is not likely that loosely joined networks will replace institutions like government, it is likely that government will continue to get compared to private sector services with a heavy online presence. Kathy Nyland from the City of Seattle, laments that she is often asked: “why the City can’t be more like Amazon?” Simply put, people want better customer service from city departments. Otherwise, they will steadily lose trust in the institutions upon which they are dependent.

Too often, when government talks about public engagement, what they really mean is consumer engagement. This slippage between the citizen (defined by the whole of their human rights and responsibilities) and a consumer (defined by their singular consumption of goods or services), is problematic. Public engagement of citizens should remain distinct from consumer engagement. The goal of local government should be to provide services and empower citizens to act and advocate for their needs. This is not always in alignment with the goal of creating dependent, “happy customers.”

Happy Customers

Happiness, for which the Declaration of Independence guarantees the right to pursue, is not a fixed state. It is a potential, towards which every citizen should have the freedom to aspire. As soon as this freedom is characterized as a specific state of being, it becomes saturated with values and norms and represents a limiting, manipulative logic. So when government officials ponder the definition of 21st-century citizenship, marked by the promise of increasingly usable services through the good design of technology, they should avoid confusing the happy customer with the happy citizen.

What it means to be a citizen (not in terms of legality, but in terms of belonging) is changing. Sociologist Michael Schudson sees the “informed citizen” model, where civics education was once about knowing the three branches of government and how a bill becomes a law, giving way to a “rights-bearing” one, focused on the opportunity and ability to exercise rights.6 Communication scholar Lance Bennett points as well to a shift away from the “dutiful” citizen, wherein people engage out of duty, towards a “self-actualizing” citizen, wherein people’s motivations are much more personal and self-directed.7 The evidence is fairly clear that these transformations are taking place, including an increased distrust in institutions of all sorts (especially government), fueled by (but not caused by) new digital channels of participation and corresponding expectations of interaction and responsiveness.

“Citizenship is not simply the sum of good transactions. It is relational and personal.”

But there is an important difference between a rights-bearing, self-actualizing citizen and a happy customer. One is about self-definition and the other is about the quality of a transaction. And while consumer brands try hard to disguise these differences (your phone and your clothes define you), government should resist the urge to do so. This is according to Chris LeDantec, Assistant Professor at Georgia Tech and Coordinator of Atlanta’s City Accelerator project: “There seems to be a tension between the transactional and the relational way of working as an organization. The question is whether the city makes the effort to relate to different parts of different communities and different neighborhoods, or if they approach it as a customer service model that tends to be more transactional.”

What are the actions that municipal government can take to transform transactions into meaningful relationships? In other words, how can government foster meaning making, cultivate connections between people, and encourage self-directed action? One approach is to recognize and counter the commonplace blurring of two separate actions: outreach and engagement. Letting people know about what you’re doing through outreach is not the same thing as involving people in doing things together through engagement. Cities are spending millions of dollars on outreach consultants each year, perpetuating the cycle of transaction, publicity, transaction, publicity. Public engagement is not the work of communication departments, but of every department in city government. Citizenship is not simply the sum of good transactions. It is relational and personal.

If government is truly committed to meaningfully engaging the public beyond transaction, then it needs to build platforms, tools, and processes that allow for it on an ongoing basis. Happiness might be understood as a sense of community or a sense of place. It is the experience of some kind of perceived resolution. Government may not need to provide happiness for people, but it does need to provide the context in which people are able to seek it out for themselves.

Things to Keep in Mind

  • Meaningful engagement requires new ways of listening and responding to citizens.

  • Improved communication can happen through levereging networked technologies and media that people already use.

  • Co-production is any process that directly engages constituents in the planning and implementation of services and programs.

  • Citizens are not merely users or consumers of services. Government co-production should reflect the whole citizen’s needs and values while employing local cultural resources.


1 See John Alfred. 2009. Engaging Public Sector Clients: From Service-Delivery to Co-Production Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan and Tony Bovaird, 2007. Beyond engagement and participation: User and community coproduction of public services. Public Administration Review 67:846-860.

2 Gordon, Eric, Jessica Baldwin-Philippi, and Marina Balestra. (2013). Why We Engage: How Theories of Human Behavior Contribute to Our Understanding of Civic Engagement in a Digital Era. SSRN Electronic Journal, (21). doi:10.2139/ssrn.2343762

3 Putnam, Robert D. 2000. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Edited by Simon And Schuster. Book. Vol. 115. A Touchstone Book. Simon & Schuster.

4 Smith, Aaron, Kay Lehman Schlozman, Sidney Verba, and Henry Brady. 2009. “The Internet and Civic Engagement.” Pew Internet & American Life Project. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center.

5 "Public Trust in Government: 1958-2014", Pew Research Center, November 13, 2014.

6 Schudson, Michael. 1998. The Good Citizen: A History of American Civic Life. New York: Free Press.

7 Bennett, W Lance, and Alexandra Segerberg. 2012. “The Logic of Connective Action.” Information, Communication, & Society 15 (5): 37–41.