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What We Should Mean When We Talk About Citizen Engagement

Getting people to care about their communities is far more important than grabbing their attention for a measurable metric.

With the election looming large on the horizon, it is easy to default to the position that voting is the most important form of civic engagement. But when the maelstrom of presidential politics passes (which it will), public institutions will be left to the work-a-day efforts of democratic governance, including the distribution of resources and the provision of services to those who need them.

Partly because of our current political discourse, and partly the cause of it, public institutions are struggling for legitimacy. This is not just a political moment, it is a moment defined by a technological shift that is producing massive amounts of digital data and increased demand to produce more of it. As a result, there is an increased expectation of transparency (consider police cams, Facebook Live, etc.), and real need for public institutions to “open up” and become more responsive.

This is why there has been such an emphasis on increasing public participation and instantiating community engagement efforts in cities: it’s not just because it’s the right thing to do, but also a veritable necessity for institutions to weather major technological, social and cultural changes.

We can understand this moment as being composed of two opposing forces: on one hand, an extraordinary bounty of data and the compulsion to create smarter and better analytics for more efficient and responsive institutions, and on the other hand, deep and resounding community connections, rising of oppositional voices (i.e. Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, etc.), and people-centered processes. As a result, cities and town in the United States have been grappling with the demand for increased technological efficiency and transparency, just as they have been struggling to make institutions “more human and” “more relatable.”

In 2016, the National Science Foundation launched a multi-year research program on Smart Cities (big urban data has become big business), and at the same time, city governments throughout the country, including Boston and Seattle, have hired cabinet-level “chiefs of civic engagement,” tasked with building relationships and trust.

But here’s the problem: The institutional language of engagement has been defined by its measurement. Chief engagement officers in corporations are measuring milliseconds on web pages, and clicks on ads, and not relations among people. This is disproportionately influencing the values of democracy and the responsibility of public institutions to protect them.

Too often, when government talks about engagement, it is talking those things that are measurable, but it is providing mandates to employees imbued with ambiguity. For example, the executive order issued by Mayor Murray in Seattle is a bold directive for the “timely implementation by all City departments of equitable outreach and engagement practices that reaffirm the City’s commitment to inclusive participation.”  

This extraordinary mayoral mandate reflects clear democratic values, but it lacks clarity of methods. It reflects a need to use digital technology to enhance process, but it doesn't explain why. This in no way is meant as a criticism of Seattle’s effort; rather, it is simply meant to illustrate the complexity of engagement in practice. Departments are rewarded for quantifiable efficiency, not relationships. Just because something is called engagement, this fundamental truth won’t change.

Government needs to be much more clear about what it really means when it talks about engagement. In 2015, Living Cities and the Citi Foundation launched the City Accelerator on Public Engagement, which was an effort to source and support effective practices of public engagement in city government. This 18-month project, based on a cohort of five cities throughout the United States, is just now coming to an end. Out of it came several lasting insights, one of which I will share here. City governments are institutions in transition that need to ask why people should care.

After the election, who is going to care about government? How do you get people to care about the services that government provides? How do you get people to care about the health outcomes in their neighborhoods? How do you get people to care about ensuring accessible, high-quality public education?

I want to propose that when government talks about civic engagement, it is really talking about caring. When you care about something, you make a decision to be attentive to that thing. But “caring about” is one end of what I’ll call a spectrum of caring. On the other end, there is “caring for,” when, as described by philosopher Nel Noddings, “what we do depends not upon rules, or at least not wholly on rules -- not upon a prior determination of what is fair or equitable -- but upon a constellation of conditions that is viewed through both the eyes of the one-caring and the eyes of the cared-for.”

In short, caring-for is relational. When one cares for another, the outcomes of an encounter are not predetermined, but arise through relation. If we are truly to adopt an ethic of public institutions that is inclusive and responsive, we need to be cautious of the language of engagement, which implies attentiveness, but also, as it is used so commonly in the public sector, a kind of captivity. To engage customers is to grab them, to assimilate them into a system and make them compliant. In the public sector, the goal should be to care for communities, and to nurture outcomes based on relations, not pre-conceived ideals. There is a reciprocity that is important to achieve -- if government in the American ideal is of the people and for the people, then the challenge of government institutions is to develop programs, services and opportunities for people to “care for” and feel “cared about” by the people.

This is caring for civics. I mean this in two ways: First, civic life, and the public institutions that mediate it, is in transition. It is going to require organizational and thought leadership to care for it. And there is need to think beyond engagement as a matter of market efficiency.

Second, we need to instantiate a “caring-for” civics. This is an approach to civic life that is fundamentally relational, where public institutions create value systems and metrics that support long-term relationship building in addition to short-term attention.

If we consider the work of government as operating within this spectrum of caring, from caring about to caring for, then we can better understand the tensions I described above as part of the same effort. It is important that people care about government and their community; it is more important that people care for their communities, where their attention is transformed into responsibility and connection. Caring for civics is the guiding value for 21st-century governance.

Leader of City Accelerator's cohort on Local Government Engagement
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