Thousands of students and supporters gather along Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington in the March for Our Lives rally against school gun violence.

Thousands of students and supporters gather along Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington in the March for Our Lives rally against school gun violence. Joseph Gruber/

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The Future of Civic Engagement

The precipitous drop in public trust in government over the past decade has been unsettling, but engaging citizens directly may help reverse this trend.

From its earliest days, American democracy has been rooted in vigorous civic engagement. More recently, there have been fears that increasing distrust in institutions will lead to large scale disengagement in civic life. However, some optimistic observers are hopeful that the millennial generation will create new momentum for civic involvement.  But what will that involvement look like? And importantly, what are the implications for the perceived legitimacy of government action in society?

According to a new book, New Power, authors Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms observe that “Participation needs to be much more than a website that allows you to point out occasional potholes in the street; it need to be a constant and compelling experience that keeps people working together on the things that matter.” In their view, “The goal of new power is not to hoard it but to channel it.”

The IBM Center, as part of its 20th anniversary activities this year, is looking 20 years ahead. It recently held the third in a series of “Envision Government in 2040” sessions, with participants focusing on the role of citizens in government (the first session focused on the future of work in the public sector; the second assessed the potential role of artificial intelligence). This small group sought to define the parameters of civic engagement, and the different models emerging today that could significantly reimagine the roles of both citizens and government.

The dialog explored four questions:

  1. What are the goals of civic engagement?
  2. What different models exist?
  3. What is a real-life example of a pioneer in engagement?
  4. What could hold back or expand engagement initiatives?

Define the Goals

Civic engagement broadly embraces public participation, citizen participation, and citizen engagement. The group noted that the starting point is for the sponsoring entity of any engagement effort, whether a bottom-up, self-organizing event like the #March4OurLives campaign or a top-down effort such as the Obama administration’s “We the People” petition website, needs to have a defined purpose or goal. This will lead to the use of different engagement models with defined roles and methods of engagement. There will be different designs for different purposes, such as agenda setting, policy development, service delivery, or program evaluation. The bottom line: approaches to engagement need to be purpose-driven; there can’t be a one-size-fits-all model.

Different Models

The newer models for engagement can be arrayed along a continuum. The New Power book describes this as a “participation scale”:

  • Complying—the traditional mandatory requirements for public hearings
  • Consuming—attending a conference or speech
  • Sharing—taking other people’s content and disseminating it to broader audiences, such as via Facebook
  • Affiliating—endorsing or joining a group of like-minded people
  • Adapting—remixing or repurposing existing content with a new message
  • Funding—endorsing with money, such as via Kickstarter
  • Producing—creating content or delivering products or services within a peer community such as via YouTube, Etsy, or Airbnb
  • Shapingactively shaping or protecting the norms of a new group of like-minded people, such as the curators or editors for Wikipedia

The trick, note the authors of New Power, is “Having a structure in place to move people up the participation scale.” Interestingly, New York City is pioneering many of these structures.

As the futurist William Gibson noted: “The future is already hereit's just not very evenly distributed.” Much of the cutting-edge innovation in civic engagement can be found at the local level, scattered around the country. In fact, the session participants predict that in the long run, all significant engagement efforts will be local—not exclusively geographically, but affinity-based.

Lessons From New York

To foster this, governments are creating structures to catalyze citizens’ ability to “move up the participation scale,” such as the establishment of civic engagement offices, sponsoring open data initiatives, and hosting participatory budgeting initiatives. New York offers some examples of how other cities might engage with their citizens in the future:

  • NYC Service. NYC Service is a city agency that “promotes volunteerism and service as a voice, a catalyst, and a capacity builder.”  Its mission is to promote volunteerism, with the goal of increasing citizen participation in volunteer activities from 18 percent to the national average of 25 percent. A 2017 report on volunteerism identified barriers to increased volunteerism and ways to address these barriers.
  • Public Engagement Unit. In 2015, the city created an office that serves as an entry point to city services. It proactively reaches out to vulnerable citizens through targeted door-to-door grassroots campaigns to connect them with benefit programs such as health insurance, anti-eviction legal counsel, workforce training, etc., in an effort to reduce homeless. According to the New York Daily News, the unit: “is using a data-driven approach to target New Yorkers in need of services—a proactive version of the city's 311 help line.”
  • Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics. This city office calls itself “New York City's civic intelligence center.” City leaders use it to “aggregate and analyze data from across City agencies, to more effectively address crime, public safety, and quality of life issues.” It “uses analytics tools to prioritize risk more strategically, deliver services more efficiently, enforce laws more effectively and increase transparency.” It also makes most of these data publicly available so citizens can also use it.
  • Participatory Budgeting NYC. The New York City Council sponsors district-level budgeting initiatives that engage citizens directly in how to spend up to $1 million of the city’s budget. “It’s grassroots democracy at its best. It helps make budget decisions clear and accessible,” according to the city’s website. Early results suggest that this approach works and it results in dialog and tradeoffs among community members. This approach is being used in about 1,500 communities around the world.

Tackling Stumbling Blocks

The session participants identified some stumbling blocks to greater citizen involvement with government. Addressing these will be important to improving engagement. These include:

  • Proactively managing risks created by hackers and haters. Engagement leaders can’t assume trust and good behavior, upfront.  
  • Ensuring marginalized communities are engaged and not forgotten in the enthusiastic rush to embrace new initiatives.
  • Ensuring a secure, online identity for participants.
  • Providing feedback to participants regarding the impact of their contributions. This is particularly important for developing the goodwill needed for continued engagement.
  • Ensuring access to resources, developing staff and participant capacity, and creating a sense of legitimacy.

Government at all levels needs to provide the overarching organizational structure and legal framework, and serve as a catalyst for engagement. It also needs to ensure lower barriers of entry and fair access. Doing this, according to the authors of New Power, will change “the way everyday people see themselves in relation to institutions, authority, and one another.”

Image via Joseph Gruber/