Sometimes even the best-intentioned policymakers overlook the power of people. And even the best-intentioned discussions on social impact and leveraging big data for the social sector can obscure the power of every-day people in their communities.
But time and time again, I’ve seen the transformative power of civic engagement when initiatives are structured well. For example, the other year I witnessed a high school student walk into a school auditorium one evening during Boston’s first-ever youth-driven participatory budgeting project. Participatory budgeting gives residents a structured opportunity to work together to identify neighborhood priorities, work in tandem with government officials to draft viable projects, and prioritize projects to fund. Elected officials in turn pledge to implement these projects and are held accountable to their constituents. Initially intrigued by an experiment in democracy (and maybe the free pizza), this student remained engaged over several months, because she met new members of her community; got to interact with elected officials; and felt like she was working on a concrete objective that could have a tangible, positive impact on her neighborhood.
For many of the young participants, ages 12-25, being part of a participatory budgeting initiative is the first time they are involved in civic life. Many were excited that the City of Boston, in collaboration with the nonprofit Participatory Budgeting Project, empowered young people with the opportunity to allocate $1 million in public funds. Through participating, young people gain invaluable civic skills, and sometimes even a passion that can fuel other engagements in civic and communal life.
This is just one example of a broader civic and social innovation trend. Across the globe, people are working together with their communities to solve seemingly intractable problems, but as diverse as those efforts are, there are also commonalities. Well-structured civic engagement creates the space and provides the tools for people to exert agency over policies. When citizens have concrete objectives, access to necessary technology (whether it’s postcards, trucks, or open data portals), and an eye toward outcomes, social change happens.
Using Technology to Distribute Expertise
Technology is allowing citizens around the world to participate in solving local, national, and global problems. When it comes to large, public bureaucracies, expertise is largely top-down and concentrated. Leveraging technology creates opportunities for people to work together in new ways to solve public problems. One way is through civic crowdfunding platforms like Citizinvestor.com, which cities can use to develop public sector projects for citizen support; several cities in Rhode Island, Oregon, and Philadelphia have successfully pooled citizen resources to fund new public works. Another way is through citizen science. Old Weather, a crowdsourcing project from the National Archives and Zooniverse, enrolls people to transcribe old British ship logs to identify climate change patterns. Platforms like these allow anyone to devote a small amount of time or resources toward a broader public good. And because they have a degree of transparency, people can see the progress and impact of their efforts.
Empowering Citizens as Decisionmakers
Citizens want to participate in making decisions for their communities, and establishing opportunities and processes for participation empowers them to do so. Participatory budgeting, for example, began in Porte Alegre, Brazil, in 1989 after 21 years of military dictatorship. Over the past few decades, the process has increased the quality of democracy in Brazil, improving governance and empowering citizens. It has also contributed to increased municipal spending on sanitation and health, increased numbers of community-based organizations, and decreased rates of infant mortality. More than 2,500 localities across the globe—including a growing number of diverse cities in America from Vallejo, California, to New York City—have begun implementing projects, allocating roughly $50 million in public dollars currently allocated in the United States, with numbers growing.
Harnessing Civic Data to Improve Policy
The combination of government and civic data also allows government to more rapidly meet constituents’ needs. Grade.DC.Gov, for example, uses social media sentiment analysis to “grade” city services. People can submit comments about certain Washington, DC, agencies and see how other residents rate them. The mobile app Commonwealth Connect enables people inside Boston and neighboring communities to report local problems, even if they don’t know what specific agency to report to; the app forwards requests and provides an infrastructure complaint with Open 311 for resolving issues.
Next Steps Toward Inclusive Governance
Civic engagement should be hyper local and context specific by design to give communities and people an ability to connect and engage. At the same time, there is an emerging movement for more-inclusive decision-making that can foster the sharing of best practices and lessons to generate results.
The recent post-millennial development Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), for example, includes a commitment (16.7) to “responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels.” This goal provides an opportunity for practitioners and researchers advancing the causes of civic engagement to work together, and understand what works and why. This video reflects initial conversations—with leading thinkers from civil society, academia, government, and civic startups—about opportunities the SDG’s provide to generate shared lessons and principles that deepen civic engagement.
In fact, we have several opportunities to build upon the SDGs and align those commitments with the work practitioners are already doing in communities across the globe. First, current governmental processes provide multiple entry points for deepening inclusive governance by linking to existing institutions such as complaint boards and urban planning processes. But we need better documentation, resources to reach traditionally marginalized communities, and shared repositories to engage citizens with existing opportunities for civic engagement. Second, we must share innovations and best practices across practitioner silos to allow for learning. For example, Participedia.net—a crowdsourced repository of democratic innovation—enables researchers to document successes and challenges, and provides a resource for practitioners interested in implementing new practices. Third, connecting technology and data to offline, community-driven, bottom-up endeavors can have an exponential impact. San Francisco’s Neighborhood Postcard Project, for example, enables community connection through storytelling and exchange. The simple technology of a postcard can enable previously marginalized residents to share their stories and connect with diverse residents.
Ultimately, working toward inclusive governance will require that civil society, government, and industry work together to create spaces where people feel empowered to create change. Civic engagement is important not only for building more inclusive and resilient communities, but also for building up the civic muscles of individuals. Through participating, people can leave with new friends, community knowledge, and relationships with their government. Creating more opportunities for civic efficacy will require experimentation, and above all, a commitment to the value of genuine engagement.