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[Op-Ed] We Need a Yelp for Civic Engagement to Get the 21st Century Democracy We Want

BY Matt Leighninger | Thursday, February 26 2015

"Citizens could be assessing all kinds of civic opportunities." (yelp.com)

We have more opportunities to get involved in our communities, through a wider array of tools, processes, meetings, and apps than ever before. Some of these opportunities are interesting and beneficial, while others—especially the ones supported by governments in the name of public participation—can be frustrating and may even be harmful. So how should we judge? What kinds of public engagement are helpful?

Unfortunately, we have trouble separating productive from ineffective opportunities for civic engagement, in part because of the way we try to measure it. We focus almost entirely on assessing the impacts of discrete projects and tools, when we should also be giving citizens the chance to evaluate their civic environments. People now have the power to rate all kinds of products and services: if they had similar opportunities to rate their opportunities to participate in public life, democracy would improve.

What is engagement today?

There are three main kinds of engagement being practiced today: conventional, thick and thin. “Conventional” engagement is the default mode for official public participation, including the meetings and hearings held by school boards, zoning commissions, city councils, congressional representatives, state and federal agencies, and other public institutions. In most of these meetings, participation is extremely limited: citizens typically have three minutes at an open microphone to address their public officials. Conventional engagement is by far the most common of the three forms—even in more informal settings such as neighborhood associations and parent groups, people often use Robert’s Rules of Order and other trappings of conventional engagement.

“Thick” forms of engagement enable large numbers of people, working in small groups, to learn, decide, and act together. These practices include many different forms of dialogue, deliberation, and action planning. The participatory budgeting processes that now take place annually in many New York and Chicago city council wards are perhaps the best-known examples. Face-to-face meetings are usually at the heart of thick engagement, but not always: the neighborhood online forums supported by groups like e-democracy.org and Front Porch Forum are examples of grassroots, Internet-enabled, thick engagement. Generally speaking, thick engagement is the most meaningful and powerful of the three forms, but also the most intensive and time-consuming, and the least common.

People generally take part in “thin” forms of engagement as individuals rather than in groups. Before the Internet, the most common kinds of thin engagement were civic actions like voting, signing petitions, and filling out surveys. Now, just by sending a text or clicking a link, you can sign an e-petition, ‘like’ a cause on Facebook, retweet an opinion, or rank ideas in a crowdsourcing exercise. In just a few minutes, people can contribute to maps and documents, donate money to a project, or give feedback on public problems and services. These are all “thin” kinds of engagement, though their cumulative impact can certainly be substantial.

Thin and thick forms of engagement seem to complement one another well, and some processes and platforms offer opportunities for both. Most people use SeeClickFix ‘thinly,’ to report potholes, graffiti, or similar problems to public works employees, but in certain situations it becomes a hub for ‘thick’ conversation and collaboration to solve a public problem. In the case of participatory budgeting, some people engage ‘thickly’ in assessing community needs and developing proposals, while others engage ‘thinly’ in the vote to determine which proposals receive funding. The “Text, Talk, Act” campaign of the National Dialogue on Mental Health is yet another example of using thick and thin engagement in concert.

What do we know about the impacts of engagement?

A great deal of time and energy has been spent trying to measure the impacts of these three kinds of engagement. We have more information on thick and conventional forms, because they have been around longer and are easier to study.

Thick engagement has a range of benefits and impacts, according to a wide body of research. People who take part in these processes become more informed about public issues and solutions, more likely to say they trust public institutions, and more likely to run for office or serve in other leadership roles in the future. Most participants in thick engagement processes say they enjoyed the experience.

Impacts on neighborhoods and communities, rather than individuals, are harder to measure, but there are many studies that describe how thick engagement processes helped people generate new ideas, helped resolved disputes, inspired volunteer action efforts, and influenced public policy.

We also know that conventional engagement has, in many cases, the opposite effects. Standard public meetings tend to increase citizens’ feelings of powerlessness, decrease their trust in government, and increase polarization. In most cases, they seem to have no discernible effect on public policy. Above all, nobody likes these meetings. Public officials seem to hate them the most, for good reason: being confronted by angry citizens can be a scarring experience. The 2009 Congressional “town hall meetings” on health care reform received widespread media attention because they were focused on a high-profile national issue, but the same angry dynamic plays out over and over again in all kinds of public meetings at all levels of government. While actual violence is still rare, incidents like the 2011 Kirkwood city council shooting suggest that in a variety of ways, conventional engagement has become increasingly dangerous for all concerned.

We know less about the impacts of thin engagement because these forms (at least the online ones) are newer, more diverse, and changing rapidly. In addition, the effects on participants may be harder to spot because the experiences themselves are often so brief – it only takes a few seconds for you to click a link, whereas it might take you several minutes to fill out a survey about the experience. There are interesting cases of online engagement affecting public perceptions of an issue, like the KONY 2012 video sensation and the Trayvon Martin case, but as with many examples of thick engagement, it is difficult to show exactly how the participation made an impact on policy. The debate over thin engagement has become increasingly fierce, with advocates claiming it is transforming politics, and critics charging that it is nothing more than superficial ‘clicktivism.’

Perhaps the greatest shortcoming of how we practice thick and thin engagement is the fact that these are almost always temporary projects or isolated tools; unlike conventional engagement, they are not part of the official, entrenched procedures for participation. They may be democratic opportunities, but they are not regular features of our democracy—at least, not yet.

This is a particularly frustrating reality because of one other thing we know about the impacts of engagement: when meaningful, productive forms of participation are sustained over long periods of time, they seem to have a range of other effects on quality of life. Studies of Brazilian cities, where participatory budgeting and many other democratic innovations first emerged more than twenty years ago, show that these communities have higher tax compliance, lower infant mortality, higher economic growth, higher redistribution of wealth, and lower levels of corruption (and, in those cities, public officials are 10 percent more likely to be re-elected).

The potential of allowing citizens to measure democracy

Despite all the energy and ingenuity that is evident in the newer forms of engagement, these democratic innovations are not transforming American politics. This is partly because most citizens do not think that American politics can be transformed; they are resigned to the idea that our democracy cannot be improved.

But here’s the paradox, and perhaps the opportunity. Today, we are constantly being engaged by citizen-centered ways of measuring—and improving—many other aspects of our lives. Almost every transaction now comes with the opportunity to rate the product or service you receive, from the customer reviews on Amazon to the link to an online survey on the receipts you are handed by cashiers. (Even some public bathrooms ask you to rate the experience as you exit.) Our devices and apps, from GPS units to Yelp, continually ask us “How would rate this Dunkin Donuts?” and “How would you rate this gas station?”

This same thinking and technology could be applied to civic engagement, especially if governments, the institutions responsible for official, conventional engagement, said they wanted the feedback. Why shouldn’t Yelp ask us “How would you rate this school board meeting?” or “How would you rate this public library?” In fact, Yelp already has a category for Public Services and Government that cities could start with or build on.

Citizens could be assessing all kinds of civic opportunities, from the Facebook page run by the neighborhood association to the app that helps parents interpret their children’s test scores. Rather than tiny, incomplete snapshots of individual processes and tools, this approach to measurement would give us a more comprehensive, holistic, citizen-centered vision of local democracy, and might spur efforts to improve all kinds of engagement.

One key value of a citizen-centered approach to measurement would be the capacity to understand how economic, racial, and other inequalities play out politically. It would give us better answers to questions like “Do poor people have high-quality opportunities for engagement?” and “What kinds of engagement do recent immigrants value?” According to some scholars, one key to the success of Brazil’s democratic reforms is the fact that reducing poverty and inequality was always an explicit goal of participatory budgeting and other initiatives.

There are many ways to gather these kinds of information, from simple surveys to reporting platforms like SeeClickFix, interactive maps such as LocalWiki, and proactive approaches like GoogleNow cards, which can alert people to civic opportunities before they happen and ask for their ratings afterward. Sharing this data transparently, encouraging people to analyze it, and allowing civic technologists to build new tools and apps around it, could open up whole new possibilities for innovation in engagement.

In addition to a better understanding of how different forms of engagement fail and succeed, these kinds of ratings could be aggregated in ways that gave us an overall sense of how each jurisdiction and each institution is faring. In turn, this would create more incentives for improving democracy, at every level of governance. Neighborhoods with higher engagement scores might attract more homebuyers; countries that showed more democratic patterns of engagement might attract more foreign aid and investment; a certification system could be devised for local governments and school systems, rewarding them for offering high-quality engagement opportunities or supporting local democracy more generally.

There are dangers here, of course, as there are with any system of measurement. Converting something as complex as democratic governance into a simple rating system could trivialize the whole endeavor. Inevitably, some public officials and other leaders would look for ways to manipulate or distort the numbers. (Indeed, back when mySociety’s TheyWorkForYou platform tracked how often Members of Parliament spoke on the floor, it had the perverse effect of causing MPs to spend more time talking, just to improve their rating.) But as with other systems of measurement, there are avenues for preventing manipulation, helping people interpret scores, and backing up simple ratings with more substantive research.

The most fundamental benefit of helping people measure democracy is that it would reinforce the idea that democracy can, in fact, be improved. By giving citizens the chance to assess and quantify their civic environments, we might get out of our current rut of resignation and mistrust. We might realize that conventional engagement opportunities can and should be updated to fit the needs and goals of 21st Century democracy. Rather than the political systems we are stuck with, we might all be better able to achieve the political systems we want.

Matt Leighninger is executive director of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium and the coauthor of Public Participation for 21st Century Democracy (June 2015).