Democracy. In the very root of the word is the notion that it is the people who rule. It is engrained in all Americans that in our country, government is by the people and for the people. Of course, for this to be true, the people must be involved. Citizens must be actively engaged in every level of government if our country is to run as we believe it should.
In recent studies by the National Conference on Citizenship, it has unfortunately been discovered that this ideal is not being met. Citizens are not showing the levels of civic engagement that democracy requires, and that our cities need in order to flourish.
In one study on South Carolina, it was found that while the state’s citizens ranked highly for “traditional forms of political involvement” (voting in national elections and registering to vote), they were near the bottom of state rankings in other, more subtle forms of civic engagement: boycotting products, contacting elected officials, forming strong relationships with neighbors, discussing politics and participating in local meetings regarding matters of school or city policy.
In a separate study looking at Washington, D.C., the findings again made clear that just because members of a community vote, there is no guarantee that they are then engaged in the community in other ways. While residents of D.C. have consistently high rates of voter turnout, they are unlikely to have strong relationships with neighbors, rarely eat dinner with other members of their household and while they volunteer at rates higher than the national average (coming in at 32.2%), this still quite low compared to the number of voters.
Between the two studies, it was found that political and civic engagement, in almost any form, is strongly correlated to not only a person’s income, but also to their level of education. While the studies referenced here look at fairly large population areas (the state of South Carolina as a whole and the city of D.C.), in cities with higher numbers of low-income residents with lower levels of educational attainment, there are clear reasons for concern. As elected officials, it can be challenging enough to work with the many different voices that arrive at the table; it is next to impossible to work with the voices that cannot even be found.
Given that a strong community is one that works on behalf of all its residents, it is imperative that citizens from all walks of life exercise their right to be both civically and politically engaged. As new technology is being developed, it is becoming easier than ever to encourage citizens to raise their voice. Emerging apps allow citizens to express needs for city services in real-time and allow elected officials to engage with residents who might never step foot in City Hall.
In Washington, D.C., the website “Grade D.C.” has been developed as a way for residents to provide feedback on the quality of city services and departments, from the public school system to the police department to the Department of Employee Services. In allowing the community to assign a grade to the work being done by government-run entities, not only do citizens have a voice to express their appreciation and frustrations, but they are able to see the feedback provided by others, and use that to make informed decisions as to the city agencies with which they choose to interact. By establishing this innovative online format to provide feedback to the city, leaders in D.C. have created a non-threatening way to engage with citizens who may not be willing to go to City Hall, yet have a vested interest in ensuring that city services are provided smoothly and effectively.
In Philadelphia, a similar desire to engage citizens led to the creation of the tool “Textizen,” as one piece of the New Urban Mechanics movement. Now being used in both Boston and Philadelphia, Textizen permits residents to text in their thoughts and opinions on any and all city projects, dramatically increasing the number of voices that are able to be heard on any one issue. Taking this concept a step further, Boston has developed the “Citizens Connect TXT” program, which gives anyone in the city a way to notify the city of local problems, from graffiti in public spaces to unlit streetlights and other safety hazards. In providing a simple way for citizens to contact their local government, these cities are actively encouraging civic engagement on the part of all
As members of the National League of Cities push to see their cities become centers of innovation, it is important to remember the necessity of including all citizens in this push forward. This is by no means a simple job, yet cities around the country are showing that they are able to rise to meet the challenge by thinking outside of the box and truly valuing the many different voices in their communities. When city officials intentionally choose to harness the powers of technology, the ideals of democracy come closer to being achieved, even in a world that has changed immeasurably since our nation was founded.