ON THE AGENDA | AUGUST 21ST, 2017 | MATT LEIGHNINGER

How Public Engagement Needs to Evolve, Part 3

“Thick engagement doesn’t scale, and thin engagement doesn’t stick”

More in this series:

How Public Engagement Needs to Evolve, Part 1

How Public Engagement Needs to Evolve, Part 2

How Public Engagement Needs to Evolve, Part 3

How Public Engagement Needs to Evolve, Part 4

How Public Engagement Needs to Evolve, Part 5

How can public engagement evolve in order to meet the challenges and conditions of 2017? My previous post argued for making engagement more social, versatile, convenient and fun. This time, I’ll explore the need to deal with the challenge of scale, so that people can be heard on state and federal issues, not just local ones.

Though we need people weighing in on national problems like the federal budget and global challenges like climate change, engagement remains largely local. Of the thousands of engagement processes conducted each year, the majority occur in cities, towns and neighborhoods. This is especially true of “thick” forms of engagement, in which people spend time in small groups learning, deliberating and planning for action. Thick engagement is productive, but intensive.

Local engagement is more common because these initiatives typically require a diverse, critical mass of participants to succeed, and the number of people required to create this diverse, critical mass is smaller at the local level. You need a sufficiently large web of relationships so that potential participants are approached by people they already know, and you need to give people some assurance that their participation will make an impact. Both things are easier to achieve in communities, towns and neighborhoods.

Twenty years ago, when widespread internet use began to reshape how we organized and thought about engagement, it was tempting to assume that online communication would immediately solve the problem of scale. But while some examples of digital engagement have managed to involve tens of thousands of people, those numbers don’t always seem to matter. When faced with these kinds of situations, Members of Congress usually ask if their constituents are taking part, and whether those people are a small, like-minded group or a large and diverse one.

Being able to show where the participants came from – which political jurisdictions they belong to – might help. But another difficulty is that social media activity is often an extremely “thin” form of engagement; it is fast and easy, but it doesn’t require much thought, research or ongoing commitment from the participant, and it doesn’t always provide opportunities or encouragement for people who want to dig deeper. “Thick engagement doesn’t scale, and thin engagement doesn’t stick,” laments Micah Sifry of Civic Hall.

Some of the newer types of engagement, such as the SMS-enabled discussions I described in the previous post, blend thick and thin in a way that overcomes the limitations of each. Large numbers of people can participate – “Text, Talk, Act” has involved 50,000 so far – but the experience sticks with people enough that they are more likely to take action and remain engaged afterward.

Another approach to scale is to follow the thinking of Thomas Jefferson, who argued that we should “Divide the country into wards,” each of them small enough for successful participation, but sufficiently linked to one another that they could function as a nation. And, suddenly, we may actually have a country of linkable wards: local online networks such as neighborhood email listservs, local Facebook group pages, e-democracy.org forums and NextDoor neighborhoods now cover huge swaths of the population. (NextDoor, which is a private, localized social network, now has over 100 users in 40% of all American neighborhoods.)

Local online networks combine the convenience of thin engagement with the potential for thick. People stay involved in these virtual spaces for many reasons: they are convenient, they allow for interaction, they deepen and complement face-to-face relationships, they are adaptable by the participants, and they give people a powerful sense of membership. They also help people solve basic daily challenges: members may talk about what the school board did or what the mayor said, but they also ask questions like “Who knows a good plumber they can recommend?”

By themselves, local online networks will not revitalize democracy or solve the problem of scale. Sometimes the discussion threads become too heated, and the network doesn’t have a good way to facilitate dialogue around a controversial topic. Online networks can also encourage thinly veiled racism, as people contribute concerned posts about “those people” or “those kids” who are hanging out on the corner of the street. And so far, there is no coherent strategy for linking thousands of local networks to make an impact on state, federal or global problems.

So, there seem to be several directions for innovation, several ways that engagement can evolve to address the challenge of scale:

  • Find new strategies of connecting different kinds of engagement opportunities – so that people who click “like” on a Facebook page or sign an online petition find out about a meeting happening in their community or an online network they can join (digital strategist Abhi Nemani calls this the “civic upsell”.
  • Create new ways of helping members of Congress and other decision-makers understand the nature and extent of online engagement among their constituents – and help those people connect with their public officials.
  • Develop new experiments that use SMS-enabled discussion to involve people in state or federal policy questions.
  • Help the organizers and members of local online networks use good engagement practices – like shared ground rules, policies on anonymity and relationships with decision-makers – to make their networks more participatory, effective and connected.
  • Organize processes that invite people from local online networks to deliberate and engage on an issue of state or national importance.

The internet did not by itself solve the problem of how to scale public engagement. It does, however, provide some incredible capabilities that, when combined with some of our other knowledge about how people like to engage, may help make engagement far more viral, prevalent and powerful.

Want to learn more about public engagement strategies? Join us in Chicago on October 19 for our Public Engagement Strategy Workshop to work on revamping and strengthening your engagement efforts. Click here for more information and to register.


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