Digital Democracy: Increasing Civic Engagement Through Technology

Many articles describe the decline of civic engagement, low voter turnout and how the masses are apathetic and disconnected from democracy.  However, there are many people who see potential in digital technologies as being a great tool to get those traditionally not involved to be more a part of public deliberation and decision-making. The rapidly growing field of “civic tech” aims to use digital technology to get community members to be more engaged, improve cities and make government more effective.

There is no denying that the internet has created a paradigm shift that has meant a huge expansion of who has access to information. It is now much easier for the average person to quickly and easily find out about voting records of elected officials or sign an online petition. But it is important too that we as a society be thoughtful and think critically about what is actually being achieved through these tools—is it the same group of people who are already civically engaged now just participating online as well? How do we move beyond this first level to encourage more people to not just vote but to be a part of the public discussion of issues, and bring in perspectives of those not normally heard from?

There is much for us to learn about how to foster engagement through technology and ensure that we are creating new value with these technology tools–and these lessons can be applied beyond civic tech to other social change efforts.

Mine and Make Use of Social Media

#VizLou is an example of a pilot effort by the City of Louisville to get input on a city’s strategic planning process from those who do not normally attend public meetings—millennials.  They designed an outreach effort with a few local youth groups and set up a Twitter hashtag (#vizlou) for all comments so they could stream to a microsite letting people see the full list in one place. They received many responses in a month that then became part of the submissions that went before the Mayor and the committee finalizing the plan.

Austin’s transportation authority also experimented with gathering input on their planning via social media with a program called SNAPP. They mined tweets that included the words “traffic” and “Austin” to better understand the public’s pain points in relation to transportation in the Austin area. For example, someone tweeted “Seriously, the Austin bus system needs major work”. SNAPP replied asking what was not working for them and how the bus system could be improved which led to an exchange about an increase in frequency of buses on the route. This information was passed to the City.

This is Not a Second Life, It’s Real Life

Also vital to the success of civic tech is the recognition that no one lives entirely online so the best efforts combine online and offline strategies that complement each other. CommunityPlanIT creates games that provide a fun, interactive way for people in a community to be involved in a public discussion—some would say the opposite of a traditional community meeting. They created a game for Detroit’s planning process and got 1,033 registered players who created over 8,400 comments about their experience with the city as it is now and where they think it should go in the future.  But what I think makes their work even better is that they then share an analysis of the results publicly. After the missions ended, there was a Game Finale meeting at the central branch of the Detroit Public Library, where over 120 people showed up to celebrate players’ accomplishments and to plan for next steps. Before the game, trust in the city’s government and planning process was at an all-time low. The game was overwhelmingly rated as the best outreach tool used by the city and was cited in the commission’s report as instrumental in achieving their long term vision for the city.

E-democracy is another example of a civic tech platform that hosts neighborhood forums to encourage information exchange between neighborhoods creating stronger bonds between people and where they live. They initiated a summer door knocking campaign to encourage people to sign up for their forums/listservs focusing on reaching under-represented populations as part of their commitment to inclusion. With nine part-time outreach staff targeting their efforts to increase diversity they signed up 3,000 new people across St. Paul, MN of whom more than 50% identified as people of color. They also have specific community moderator roles that work specifically on welcoming and encouraging new members from various populations that has been demonstrated to significantly increase the diversity of content and participants. In fact, in a 2014 survey of users, 67% reported that the forum introduced them to new ideas or perspectives and 32% reported learning about neighbors of different races or ethnicities.

These are examples of early efforts that I think show promise.  If you are interested in learning more you can check out two guides recently released on measuring success of civic tech efforts written by my colleagues and myself at