Engaging citizens with government, civic life

Above: Knight News Challenge: Election winners. Photo credit: Bob Daemmrich for The Annette Strauss Institute. 

Technology plays a growing and crucial role in engaging citizens with government, Catherine Bracy, director of community organizing at Code for America, told a gathering in Austin, Texas, Wednesday morning. And yet public engagement remains inherently broken; voter turnout in 2014 was the lowest it has been in decades.

Bracy shared her insights during one of several lightning talks at “Breaking Through,” a one-day conference at the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life at The University of Texas at Austin’s Moody College of Communication. Held in concert with the announcement of the winners of the Knight News Challenge on Elections, the conference sought to explore ways to move citizens from being bystanders to active participants in the democratic process. A series of panel discussions, keynote speakers and speed caucuses identified ways to increase civic engagement before, during and after elections.

Bracy suggested that we may be expecting technology to fix the wrong part of the problem. “We’re spending a lot of time building tools that allow citizens to speak, but we’re spending too little time on building tools to help citizens be heard by institutions.” The danger is that we’re ignoring the end user of civic technology. That end user is government, she said.

She added that it’s desirable to have a myriad of tools and apps for citizens to interact with their governments, but we also need to fundamentally influence the way government delivers services and engages with the public. Those who seek to engage citizens in civic life need to answer important questions, such as, how are local governments receiving citizen feedback? Furthermore, how are they letting citizens know that they’ve been heard–or are they ignoring them?  

Ignoring the end user of civic technology isn’t the only peril for those who want to re-engage citizens with government. While technology can improve underlying systems around civic engagement, it is also making people consider the probability that they’ll have impact, said Matt Stempeck, director of civic technology at Microsoft. “We’re all thinking about how to use technology to better do things in our democracy. And technology inherently changes how government sees itself.”

Stempeck also underscored that it will be difficult to inform and engage the public in the growing field of civic tech and to bring new people into it unless different sectors–from  government to journalism to politics–work across their silos.

He suggested that the field of civic tech be thought of as networked, concentric circles, rather than individual and siloed. As a way to visualize that network, Stempeck demonstrated Civic Graph – a crowdsourced data visualization tool that displays the people, organizations and connections within the civic tech ecosystem. He invited everyone to add to the current information or to edit it, to use the data in other projects via its API, and to help improve it by contributing to its source code.

The relationship between democracy and technology is also inherently data-driven, said Troy Thibodeaux, of the data team at the Associated Press. We’ve been counting things for a long time, but as journalists it becomes most interesting when you ask what is being counted. Furthemore we need to address issues such as how to take that data and find ways to make it engaging. He implored journalists to bring newer quantitative approaches to getting more from the data sets they’ve always used.

Earlier in the morning, Knight Foundation, along with its partners Democracy Fund, the Rita Allen Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, announced the winners of the Knight News Challenge on Elections. Twenty-two projects will share $3.2 million for their ideas on how to better inform voters and increase civic participation.

Elizabeth Miller Tilis is a digital communications consultant based in Kansas City, Mo. Email her at [email protected].