Since the 2016 US presidential election, everyone—including the President and those protesting outside his office—has been talking about bringing the voices of everyday citizens into public life. Several hurdles have prevented the efforts of many groups—including nationwide organizations, civic technologists, social entrepreneurs, policymakers, and advocates championing civic innovation—from reaching and supporting communities that are already engaging citizens in effective ways. These include but are not limited to:

  • The challenge of taking local interventions to national politics
  • Overreliance on data-driven mechanisms versus community-based solutions
  • A lack of definition of political participation beyond elections

Through many disparate efforts runs a persistent question: Where are these citizens? Where, precisely, are people congregating in public life in 2017 America?

One challenge to engaging community residents in civic life beyond simply voting every two or four years is that there is no consensus about what a more robust, participatory model of democracy—one in which people more actively participate in the civic fabric of their community—looks like in the United States. As Harvard Kennedy School Professor Archon Fung noted in an article:

The lack of any background agreement, or even common orientation, on even basic questions about public participation makes the job of those who champion participatory innovation much more difficult. … There would be much more friction and unevenness in elections in the United States if, every two years, supporters of representative democracy had to convince people in every community across the country why voting is desirable and explain how to conduct elections.

For many scholars and practitioners, the answer to where citizens are congregating is a bit of a riddle: Civic life takes place both everywhere and nowhere specific—it is in cities, towns, and communities all across the country, but there is no single center of gravity. That poses challenges for those who wish to mobilize nationwide efforts and who recognize that citizens have finite time. But beneath these challenges, there is also an opportunity to look with fresh eyes on what is already working, and find ways to build on it and bring it to scale.

Below are three models that have the potential to counter these obstacles and scale across communities. It is important to note, however, that unlike getting a product to market, scale in civic engagement does not always mean working on a national level. Efforts should measure civic engagement “return on investment” not just by the number of people reached, but also by the efficacy, equity, and inclusivity of the activity.

Giving citizens government data

Governments collect and generate a tremendous amount of data that has immense public value. The federal government’s decision to release National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration weather and geo-spatial data in the 1970’s led to the creation of the weather and GPS industries. According to McKinsey, open data has the potential to fuel more than $3 trillion in economic value, especially in health care and consumer finance sectors, and the government has a role to play.

Cities across the country have already started opening up their data. Through application programming interfaces (APIs), they are making government information both readable and writable, thus enabling people not only to view and use information, but also to add it. What Works Cities—started by Bloomberg Philanthropy, in partnership with several universities and nonprofits—is supporting local governments in expanding opportunities around data, including making open data available. Meanwhile, the Mayor of Louisville, Kentucky issued an executive order in 2013 making open data the government default—a move that has benefitted nonprofits, entrepreneurs, and academics alike. And the city of Albuquerque, New Mexico has helped spur a tech ecosystem that builds on open data. This has led to the formation of new companies like APPCityLife and CivNet, which organize users based on community action, and Cultivating Coders, a free, mobile coding camp for historically underserved communities that recently received funding from Microsoft.

These efforts and others demonstrate Tim O’Reilly’s “government as a platform.” Creating the right balance of supply and demand—between the information government has and the information citizens need—can fuel civic engagement and entrepreneurship.

Giving citizens a direct line to their representatives

There is also an increasing array of innovations—including interactive public meetings, and participatory planning and zoning commissions—aimed at enabling residents to more easily connect with local government officials. At Crown Townhall in Charlotte, North Carolina, for example, city officials are encouraged to have in-person conversations with community members so that they can learn first-hand about people’s policy preferences.

In Boston, the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics is conducting ethnographic, human-centered research to design middle-income housing that reflects people’s lived experiences. This includes intensive planning sessions in which residents, designers, and policy experts co-create policy blueprints. As part of these efforts, Boston showcased uhü, a 385-square-foot physical model unit that serves as an example of more compact urban living. This small unit traveled across Boston while the team gathered feedback from city residents to learn how they felt about smaller living. Boston is one of several US cities to dedicate staff to engaging the public, leveraging new approaches, and building strategic partnerships between government and multi-sector actors.

Giving citizens a seat at the table

There are also several promising models for citizens to serve as co-producers of policy. Participatory budgeting, for example, lets community residents allocate a portion of taxpayer dollars to public projects. New York City—supported by the Participatory Budgeting Project, and Community Voices Heard—is home to the largest participatory budgeting effort to date and recently enabled online voting for projects.

Another promising model is the Citizens’ Jury method, pioneered by the Jefferson Center. Three counties in rural Minnesota are using 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. Participants also pledge to fulfill local action to mitigate climate change. One participant says, “Before I was a part of these events, I really didn’t think there was anything I could do about [climate change]. I was always just one of those who thought, ‘It’s too big of an issue. It’s happening. My hands are tied.’ [By participating in] these events, I realize that there are things we can do, even me personally, my community.”

With what seems like a toxic political culture in Washington, now is the moment for the social sector to explore new opportunities for strengthening civic engagement. By pursuing open data, direct lines of communication, and co-creation of policy, we can establish a forward-looking agenda for deepening civic life in America.

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