More power to the people: Understanding what moves civic engagement

Communities / Article

Photo: Knight Civic Innovation in Action Studio, May 2014 in Miami. Credit: Tom Clark.

Kate Catherall is vice president of 270 Strategies, and a recent attendee at Knight Foundation’s Civic Innovation in Action Studio, which explored ways to harness talent, advance opportunity and promote robust engagement.

“I know it when I see it.”

This is the typical response to the question, “What does robust engagement look like?” 

Evidence of a disengaged citizenry is all around us in the United States. One need only look at voter registration and voter turnout rates to conclude that a culture shift is in order. Americans are fed up with Congress. They don’t know their neighbors. They too often feel that they have little power in shaping their country, their city, their neighborhood. Their democracy.

Academics, designers, elected officials and practitioners have identified various barriers to a culture of engagement: physical, socio-economic, psychological. We’ve begun to uncover effective ways of breaking down these barriers. We’ve learned it’s important to meet people where they are. We’ve gone online. We’ve begun to invest in infrastructure. We’re seeing big returns on investing in public spaces. But we haven’t solved this problem. Volunteers, advocates, people who show up to community meetings, and those who write their elected officials and legislators are still the exception to the rule.

We do know what robust civic engagement looks like when we see it. Or at least we think we do. We catch glimpses of it. We’ve identified some of the ingredients, but we don’t yet have a recipe.

The question of how to create a culture of robust engagement in America is a complex one. It is this question that I, alongside many others, traveled to Miami to try to answer at Knight’s Civic Innovation in Action Studio. Each of us brought our own frameworks for successful engagement to the table. We tossed ideas back and forth, moving from exercise to exercise, potential solution to potential solution, but as we tried to navigate our way through what felt like a maze, we found that our conversations kept leading us to the same destination.

As an engagement strategist, I specialize in moving people to action. Having spent the last five years working on the organizing side of campaigns, I have worked tactics that have delivered real results in engaging Americans to register to vote, to choose one candidate over another, and to turn out to vote on Election Day.

These tactics and approaches are all grounded in behavioral science. We’ve learned to emphasize shared identity, connect on values and personal stories and use social pressure and plan-making to turn out voters to the polls – all tactics grounded in appealing to the emotional part of the brain that drives decision-making.

Of course, the utility of this work extends beyond an electoral context. Social scientists and behavioral economists are breaking ground as they explore the role of behavioral principles in everything from reducing household energy consumption to engaging parents in their children’s education.

We have identified many motivational and behavioral drivers in why people make decisions to do or not do. What we don’t yet know is how those drivers rank against one another in a civic context.

In other words, we have not yet determined the hierarchy of motivations that drive people to become “engaged” for the first time. What are the powerful motivational drivers in choosing to attend a meeting, to show up to a parent-teacher conference, to join a community gardening project, or to volunteer at a food bank? Surely there are many, but which drivers are universal? Which are the most powerful? Which are the most powerful among people who are not living their lives in an “engaged” way?

So, the question we asked ourselves in Miami was: “What fundamentally moves people to take actions of citizenship?”

This is the driving question in a series of experiments that grew out of the Miami studio and that we hope to conduct in the coming months. 

If we can begin to answer this critical question, we might also begin to tailor our engagement methods to tap into these motivations in an impactful way. This is essential to the work of creating a culture of robust engagement in American society.

View summaries of the work on harnessing talentadvancing opportunity andpromoting robust engagement