Engaging Citizens: A Review of Eight Approaches to Civic Engagement

 at User Experience: “Twenty years ago, Robert Putnam wrote about the rise of “bowling alone,” a metaphor for people participating in activities as individuals instead of groups that can lead to community. This led to the decline in social capital in America. The problem of individual participation as opposed to community building has become an even bigger problem since the invention of smartphones, the Internet as the source of all information, social networking, and asynchronous entertainment. We never need to talk to anyone anymore and it often feels like an imposition when we ask for an answer we know we could find online.

Putnam posited that the decline in social capital is a cause for decline in civic engagement and participation in democracy. If we aren’t engaged socially with the people around us, we don’t have as much incentive to care about what is going on that might affect them. Local elections have low voter turnout in part because people aren’t aware of or engaged in local issues.

In an attempt to chip away at this problem, platforms that attempt to encourage people to engage in civic life with government and local communities have been popping up. But how well do they actually engage people? These platforms are often criticized for producing “slacktivists” who are applying the minimum amount of effort possible and not really effecting change. Several of these platforms were evaluated to see how they work and to determine how well they actually promote civic engagement.

Measuring Civic Engagement

Code for America is an organization that works to increase engagement with local governments by putting together “brigades” of local volunteers to solve local problems using technology. They have developed an Engagement Standard that attempts to measure how well a government enables citizens to engage in civic life.

Elements of Code for America’s Engagement Standard include:

  • Reach: Defining the constituency you are trying to reach, with an emphasis on identifying those whose voices aren’t already represented.
  • Channels: Making use of a diversity of spaces, both online and off, that meet people where they are.
  • Information: Providing relevant information that is easy to find and understand, and speak with an authentic voice.
  • Productive Actions: Identifying clear, concrete, and meaningful actions residents can take to reach desired outcomes.
  • Feedback Loops: Making sure the public understands the productive impact of their participation and that their actions have value.

These elements form a funnel, shown in Figure 1, which starts with reaching the right audience and ends with providing feedback to that audience on the effects of their actions. Platforms that have low engagement tend to get stuck at the top of the funnel and platforms that foster more engagement meet all the standards in the funnel.

Funnel of engagement showing reach, channels, information, productive actions, and feedback loops.

Eight Approaches to Civic Engagement

Each of the platforms described below attempts to engage citizens in civic actions. However, each platform has a different approach….(More)”