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Authentic Engagement in the Civic Space

Taking on the task of building apps to enhance a citizen’s ability to engage in the civic space is a complex undertaking. How do we successfully translate authentic civic engagement to the web? How do we move toward a common understanding of what civic engagement even means? Finding definitive metrics to gauge the success of online civic engagement platforms poses another challenge. Traditional impact metrics for civic engagement offline, have struggled with this concept too. In a way the web makes it easier to quantify engaged users, but does it change the way we can document long-lasting engagement methods, or how we deem a certain intervention a “success?”

In 2010, the report Evidence of Change: Exploring Civic Engagement Evaluation was published by the Building Movement Project summarizing the findings of a summit on civic engagement with various practitioners and funders. Of the many things dicussed in this report, I found it particularly useful in describing the limitations of a common outcomes-based evaluation:

“The challenge is that traditional evaluation techniques work well in assessing linear processes, however, the impact of civic engagement is not linear. Community residents live in a web and as individuals become more civically engaged, the outcome and impact of their behavior is difficult to track.”

Before trying to track the results of engagement between residents and government, residents and citizen leaders or groups, or residents and residents — do we even have a common understanding of what civic engagement is? Evidence of Change also provided some relevant points on coming to an agreed definition of civic engagement: it’s hard to find consensus on the subject. Of the ideas discussed there are a few overarching themes that support a common understanding of engagement in practice:

+ Supports the capacity of existing groups working on community-based social change
+ Supports a democratic society, specifically, public involvement
+ Empowers community members to achieve change (themselves)

Strategies for Success
So that brings us to the question of how we can best engage people in the civic space on the web. What is critical for succesful web-based civic engagement? With dozens of civic apps attempting to fill the online civic engagement space, there’s a marked critique of most of the apps that have popped up — as if no one can get the engagement piece exactly right. So what’s missing? What’s working?

Working back from a common definition of civic engagement, the apps that could succeed should support the work of groups and individuals that are already or working toward some form of civic engagement. This can manifest itself in supporting a more open, democratic, and involved society, but more importantly, should empower these individuals or groups to make change for themselves.

Code for America prides itself on the apps that definitively fill in the gaps to do “more with less.” The most often cited example is the Adopt-a-Hydrant app created in 2011 — which, in a nutshell, allowed citizens to claim responsibility for digging out snow covered hydrants near their homes, indicate this on an online map to eliminate Boston’s under-resourced fire department worry about the hundreds of hydrants they couldn’t possibly dig out after a deep blizzard.

This particular app did several things to successfully resonate with most people: It was rooted entirely in behavior that was already happening in real life; it ultimately made it easier to reveal an enormous, otherwise intimidating dataset (hundreds of individual’s inconsistent behavior across Boston); and catalyzed efficiency for firemen — a critical resource in our society. Simplicity also played a big role. This was not a huge platform, it didn’t try to do too much. Of the reasons this app is a great way for CfA to describe to the un-initiated what we’re trying to do, it ultimately connected two groups of actors that previously had not engaged with each other, on the web.

As we challenge ourselves to produce more useful, engaging products, perhaps we best focus on supporting action that is happening in daily life all around us. Forget creating an entirely new space to connect online, rather support interactions that already happen (or could reasonably happen). Enhance engagement and catalyze connections between groups who don’t currently talk.

Engagement Apps
There’s a growing bent toward supporting civic engagement not just in traditional community development circles, but directly on the web. The Knight Foundation has supported an entire grant portfolio called Engaged Cities (full disclosure, CfA is a current grantee). There’s also an increasingly large canon of writing on this subject, and civic-driven apps emerging across the globe. Here’s a few of the highlights in the past weeks:

Neighborland is a platform deployed in multiple cities across the United States, seeks to “help residents shape the development of their neighborhoods” by crowdsourcing ideas and allows the user to organize by place and frequency of discussion.

Engagement Commons is latest addition to the Code for America program areas, is a platform devoted to supporting and sharing knowledge between apps that facilitate civic engagement.

Engagement Lab’s Community PlanIt is a platform that gamifies a community-based planning process with learning and problem-solving delivered through an online network and rewards-system on customized planning projects. It is currently being launched in Detroit and has been used with the Boston Public School System.

For more information on this topic see Nate Berg’s coverage of civic engagement apps at Atlantic Cities; The 2009 Pew Center Report on The Internet and Civic Engagement; And ESRI’s 7 categories for civic engagement apps.

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