What We Should Mean When We Talk About Citizen Engagement

Eric Gordon in Governing: “…But here’s the problem: The institutional language of engagement has been defined by its measurement. Chief engagement officers in corporations are measuring milliseconds on web pages, and clicks on ads, and not relations among people. This is disproportionately influencing the values of democracy and the responsibility of public institutions to protect them.

Too often, when government talks about engagement, it is talking those things that are measurable, but it is providing mandates to employees imbued with ambiguity. For example, the executive order issued by Mayor Murray in Seattle is a bold directive for the “timely implementation by all City departments of equitable outreach and engagement practices that reaffirm the City’s commitment to inclusive participation.”

This extraordinary mayoral mandate reflects clear democratic values, but it lacks clarity of methods. It reflects a need to use digital technology to enhance process, but it doesn’t explain why. This in no way is meant as a criticism of Seattle’s effort; rather, it is simply meant to illustrate the complexity of engagement in practice. Departments are rewarded for quantifiable efficiency, not relationships. Just because something is called engagement, this fundamental truth won’t change.

Government needs to be much more clear about what it really means when it talks about engagement. In 2015, Living Cities and the Citi Foundation launched the City Accelerator on Public Engagement, which was an effort to source and support effective practices of public engagement in city government. This 18-month project, based on a cohort of five cities throughout the United States, is just now coming to an end. Out of it came several lasting insights, one of which I will share here. City governments are institutions in transition that need to ask why people should care.

After the election, who is going to care about government? How do you get people to care about the services that government provides? How do you get people to care about the health outcomes in their neighborhoods? How do you get people to care about ensuring accessible, high-quality public education?

I want to propose that when government talks about civic engagement, it is really talking about caring. When you care about something, you make a decision to be attentive to that thing. But “caring about” is one end of what I’ll call a spectrum of caring. On the other end, there is “caring for,” when, as described by philosopher Nel Noddings, “what we do depends not upon rules, or at least not wholly on rules — not upon a prior determination of what is fair or equitable — but upon a constellation of conditions that is viewed through both the eyes of the one-caring and the eyes of the cared-for.”

In short, caring-for is relational. When one cares for another, the outcomes of an encounter are not predetermined, but arise through relation….(More)”.