I recently attended a conference for civic engagement academics and practitioners who discussed the role of technology in engaging citizens in democratic activities. While there was a real sense of excitement about the potential that the Internet, mobile devices, and interactive applications hold for creating better informed and engaged citizens, that excitement was balanced by several concerns about the limitations or even negative consequences of a rush to adopt new technologies in our field. One nearly universal concern among participants was that high-tech engagement tools, particularly those that are Internet-based, could replicate existing digital or non-digital divides in society usually associated with cost of access, differences in educational attainment, income, and other factors.
Another concern was that with technology advancing so quickly there could be a drive for seeking a use for a particular application rather than first identifying a need/problem that technology could help solve. I know that sometimes we don’t ‘see’ the need for something to be done better until a technology comes along that demonstrates its potential to us. However, I think the concern here was more rooted in the ‘cool’ factor of a particular technology blinding us to the fact that it may actually be expensive, more time consuming to set up, or introduce new challenges for engaging citizens in a deliberative process.
More research is needed to fully understand the ways that technology is helping/can help people become better engaged. For example, a certain technology may make it easier for a facilitator to engage or communicate with larger numbers of citizens than before. However, is that communication more likely to result in a citizen becoming better informed or participating more fully in our democracy? With the overwhelming speed with which the Internet has become a ubiquitous communication tool, research is only beginning to catch up in this area, and even then good longitudinal research needs enough time to generate useful results. Some of these concerns are addressed in recent research supported by the Institute for Policy and Civic Engagement (IPCE) at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
There was general agreement at the conference on the potential for technology to transform how people participate in democracies – in fact that transformation is clearly underway. My impression is that there was consensus that the use of technology is to be welcomed, rather than feared. At the same time, the use of technology should be 1) filling a clearly identified need 2) improving the scale and/or quality of engagement and 3) resulting in more inclusive participation of different segments of our population, or at the very least not creating a more exclusive form of participation.
Joseph K. Hoereth, PhDDirector, IPCE