Can Cities Learn a Civic Engagement Lesson From the ‘Ice Bucket Challenge’?

Passionate public participation -- combined with technology -- can be powerful
June 29, 2015 AT 11:00 AM
By Ron Littlefield  |  Senior Fellow
Ron Littlefield, a former mayor of Chattanooga, Tenn., is a senior fellow with the Governing Institute and its lead analyst on the City Accelerator initiative. A city planner by career, he also consults to government through Littlefield Associates.

The Ice Bucket Challenge, which raised $115 million for ALS in 2014, was a demonstration of the power that can result from a new era of civic engagement. Governments would be wise to take note. (University of Central Arkansas)

In 2014, a phenomenon spread across Facebook and other social media sites. It captured the interest of teenagers and politicians, celebrities, journalists, and moms and dads. It reached across social, racial and generational demographics. It was the Ice Bucket Challenge, and if you weren’t aware of it you likely had not been on the Internet or turned on your T.V. in some time.

What was incredibly interesting about the Ice Bucket Challenge – in addition to the fact that it raised $115 million for research on a disease many of the people participating in the challenge had likely never heard of – was that its origins were largely unknown. Indeed, according to an October 2014 National Journal article, “the explanation of how the video trend got started or how it worked was never entirely clear.”

The Ice Bucket Challenge was a demonstration of the power that can result from a new era of civic engagement, one that might surprise government leaders who are used to more traditional forms of citizen involvement such as attending city council meetings or volunteering at community functions. These activities – while important – have dwindled as people have become more connected by technology and less by physical interaction.

What does the Ice Bucket Challenge have to do with good government? A lot as it turns out. Ask almost any local government official what it takes to increase a city’s prosperity and you will probably get diverse answers – but there’s a good chance they will be about better education or more effective economic development. Civic engagement will likely be further down the list. However, if a community is blessed with a strong culture of public interest and involvement, it is much easier to make great strides and register accomplishments in other areas.

What is civic engagement, though? It usually means different things to different people. It's like that old story about the blind men describing an elephant – you know the one. One blind man grabs the elephant's leg and says, "The elephant is like a tree." Another grabs the tail and says, "The elephant is like a vine." And so on. It's a matter of perspective.

One succinct definition is as follows: 

Civic engagement means working to make a difference in the civic life of our communities and developing the combination of knowledge, skills, values and motivation to make that difference. It means promoting the quality of life in a community through both political and non-political processes.

Eric Gordon, the leader of the City Accelerator’s second cohort, offers his thoughts on civic engagement: “It's not simply a matter of people participating. We need to look at levels of trust and levels of efficacy. … We want to know not simply whether or not people are participating, but whether they trust in the process and whether or not they feel empowered by engaging in that process. That's what is going to ultimately lead to the long-term democratic outcomes that we want.”

In truth, civic engagement is a concept that encompasses a broad spectrum of activities and means of involvement. The National Journal article that discussed the Ice Bucket Challenge, “Why are Political Scientists Studying Ice Bucket Challenges?” poses a series of questions designed to make us ponder the meaning of civic engagement. They include: "Who is more civically engaged – the person who votes in every election or the non-voter who volunteers as a crossing guard at the local elementary school? What about the person who comments on an online news story? Does it count more if he posts the article on his Facebook page and urges his friends to act? What about the retired couple who takes care of the next-door neighbor's daughter after school until her single mom gets home from work?”

It is an established fact – painfully arrived at after years (perhaps even centuries) of trial and error by politicians, planners, social do-gooders and even despots that people tend to support that which they help to create. In short, it might be possible to sell people on an idea or a plan, or something might be forced upon them at the point of a gun, but it's much better if they are part of the process. It is doubtful that $115 million would have been contributed in the Ice Bucket Challenge if people had not been inspired.

How powerful is effective civic engagement? We might do well to remember a popular quote attributed to Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” And then, whether intentional or not, it seems the late Steve Jobs added a postscript: "Because people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do."

Civic engagement can be powerful, but what is the true measure of civic engagement? What is the scale to determine its value to society? Eric Gordon frequently uses the term “efficacy” when speaking about civic engagement, which means we should measure civic engagement by whether it achieved the desired result. While this is important, shouldn’t we all agree that it’s really about something more, some effect outside and beyond the person doing the engaging? Is it not about others?

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Life's most urgent and persistent question is, “What are you doing for others?” General William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, once sent a famous telegram to workers in the field that boiled it down even further to a single word – “Others.” It is said that he kept a small sign bearing that one word displayed prominently on his desk.

Perhaps it can be argued that those who seek to influence society from the other end of the spectrum, who incite riots and commit acts of violence or terrorism – and damage, destroy and disrupt society – have effectively employed the art and science of civic engagement. But for those who seek to move civil society to a higher level, such acts are outside the acceptable spectrum. Positive actions that make a contribution to culture and a better quality of life is the definition with which we travel. That's what City Accelerator is all about.

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