The Future of Civic Engagement

Report by Hollie Russon Gilman: “The 2018 mid-term voter turnout was the highest in 50 years. While vital, voting can’t sustain civic engagement in the long term. So, how do we channel near-term activism into long-term civic engagement?  In her essay, Gilman paints a picture of how new institutional structures, enabled by new technologies, could lead to a new “civic layer” in society that results in “a more responsive, participatory, collaborative, and adaptive future for civic engagement in governance decision making.”

Creating a New “Civic Layer.” The longer-term future presents an opportunity to set up institutionalized structures for engagement across local, state, and federal levels of government—creating a “civic layer.” Its precise form will evolve, but the basic concept is to establish a centralized interface within a com- munity to engage residents in governance decision making that interweaves digital and in-person engagement. People will earn “civic points” for engagement across a variety of activities—including every time they sign a petition, report a pot hole, or volunteer in their local community.

While creating a civic layer will require new institutional approaches, emerging technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), and distributed ledger (e.g., blockchain) will also play a critical enabling role. These technologies will allow new institutional models to expand the concept of citizen coproduction of services in building a more responsive, connected, and engaged citizenry.

The following examples show different collaborative governance and technology components that will comprise the civic layer.  Each could be expanded and become interwoven into the fabric of civic life.

Use Collaborative Policymaking Models to Build a Civic Layer.  While we currently think of elections as a primary mode of citizen engagement with government, in the medium- to long-range future we could see collaborative policy models that become the de facto way people engage to supplement elections. Several of these engagement models are on the local level. However, with the formation of a civic layer these forms of engagement could become integrated into a federated structure enabling more scale, scope, and impact. Following are two promising models.

  • Participatory Budgeting can be broadly defined as the participation of citizens in the decision-making process of how to allocate their community’s budget among different priorities and in the monitoring of public spending. The process first came to the United States in 2009 through the work of the nonprofit Participatory Budgeting Project. Unlike traditional budget consultations held by some governments—which often amount to “selective listening” exercises—with participatory budgeting, citizens have an actual say in how a portion of a government’s investment budget is spent, with more money often allocated to poorer communities. Experts estimate that up to 2,500 local governments around the world have implemented participatory budgeting,
  • Citizens’Jury is another promising collaborative policymaking engagement model, pioneered in the 1980s and currently advocated by the nonprofit Jefferson Center in Minnesota. Three counties in rural Minnesota use this method as a foundation for Rural Climate Dialogues—regular gatherings where local residents hear from rural experts, work directly with their neighbors to design actionable community and policy recommendations, and share their feedback with public officials at a statewide meeting of rural Minnesota citizens, state agency representatives, and nonprofit organizations….(More)”.