Let the need drive the technology in civic engagement
Posted by Norma Ramos on September 09, 2011 at 11:26 AM CDT
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
Welcome to CivicSource-A New Tool for Civic Engagement
Posted by Administrator on September 13, 2010 at 11:27 AM CDT
CivicSource is born! This wonderful new web resource created by the Institute for Policy and Civic Engagement (IPCE) at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), offers useful information for concerned citizens, community leaders, academics, or students seeking to learn more about civic engagement or connect with civic engagement efforts. I invite you to take CivicSource for spin – browse through all it has to offer.
As the Director of IPCE, I see this moment as a great opportunity to write a few words about our motivation behind creating this resource. CivicSource brings individuals, organizations, and institutions together with information they need to understand, deliberate, and take action on policy issues. We believe a more effective democracy is one in which all citizens are fully informed and engaged in the democratic process and we believe CivicSource can help make that happen.
The term civic engagement is used many different ways, so it is important for us to explain what we mean when we use it on this Web site. Civic engagement includes exercising our rights and responsibilities as citizens, but CivicSource represents a concept of civic engagement that goes well beyond voting and jury duty. Generally we define civic engagement as any action by an individual or group that contributes to a more effective democracy. This may include participating in a town hall forum, or becoming better informed about a particular policy issue. Civic engagement also includes expressing one’s opinion on policy issues, such as writing a letter, posting something online or joining a group of others with similar opinions. These ideas are just the tip of the iceberg of our broad definition of civic engagement. For more on our thoughts regarding civic engagement, click here http://www.uic.edu/cuppa/ipce/civicengagement.shtml to read more about our definition and to learn about examples of what we call civic engagement in action.
Why is civic engagement important? There is currently a 'deficit of trust' between citizens and government in the US. Many individuals have lost faith in government and are becoming disengaged from the democratic process or are not engaging in it in the first place. We believe that taking steps to keep citizens informed and create a more responsive government can help to improve trust in our democratic system and re-engage (or newly engage) citizens both as participants in the democratic system as individual agents of change in their communities. Engagement has the potential not only to improve the democratic process, but to also improve lives and communities through either policy change or direct community development efforts. CivicSource offers tools for such engagement, including stories about innovative civic engagement leaders who have done this kind of work and how they used their passion for engagement to bring about real change in their communities.
We spend a lot of time thinking about how technology makes a difference in civic engagement. Technology is completely transforming what is possible in a democracy. In 2011, we need to be thinking about civic engagement as a 'space,' a virtual space where people, government, and institutions come together to share information, learn, plan, or take action to address key issues of the day. When the US was mostly small towns this physical space may have been the 'Town Square', but it was also the church basement or the kitchen table where neighbors chatted on the day's events over a cup of coffee after dinner. To share information or do anything collectively people had to physically be in the same place at the same time.
Today thanks to technology and the Internet, the space for civic engagement is not limited by where you are or when you are trying to engage. People with common interests, people with different interests, government, corporations, and neighborhood organizations can be anywhere and gather to share, learn, and take action at any time through the web. In this new space and in the old, new forms of interaction are possible and old forms are enhanced. The movement toward deliberative democracy, where citizens deliberate policy alternatives themselves and rank their preferred choice and share the results directly with their elected representatives has been enabled partially due to changes in technology.
Government is an important player in this new space, but governments at all levels must also become better consumers and users of technology. This new space for civic engagement allows government to be more responsive and effective. There are more ways for citizens to reach government directly and government can provide some services more efficiently through the Internet. One of the primary goals for CivicSource is to house research and data on how governments are using technology.
We believe CivicSource has the potential to make difference in civic engagement. Though it is important to remember like any other web-based resource, it is just a tool. It is a great tool for learning more about policy issues , an important tool for discovering policy research, a useful tool for engaging like-minded (or even not so like-minded individuals) in dialogue, and ultimately a tool for improving how government works for all citizens. We have also made efforts to integrate this resource with social networking tools like Facebook and Twitter, so that you can easily access CivicSource through whatever mechanism you primarily use for connecting and sharing with others. Please make it one of your spaces for engagement. If nothing else we will all feel just a little bit more connected with each other in some meaningful way.
Joseph K. Hoereth, PhD