The Future of Civic Engagement


Hollie Russon Gilman, Ash Center Democracy Fellow, is the co-author of a new book with K. Sabeel Rahman, Civic Power: Rebuilding American Democracy in an Era of Crisis. She recently sat down with Data-Smart to discuss the opportunities for re-engaging residents in their cities today and how to be thoughtful about integrating technology for civic engagement.

Katherine Hillenbrand: Thank you for speaking with me today. Can you tell me a little bit about your new book and why you wrote it?

Hollie Russon Gilman: Thank you so much for having me on this blog. This book was actually inspired at the Ash Center while we were graduate students working on the Gettysburg Project, which was bringing together practitioners and academics at Ash. That work demonstrated the need for a deeper understanding and analysis of how to really build power both in civil society and also the opportunity within governance institutions.

KH: How does your research apply to people currently working in government?

HRG: A portion of the book looks at new models of policy making, and the opportunity for leveraging some of these new tools and approaches for deepening civic voice into decision making. In particular, how policymakers can empower traditionally marginalized communities, especially people of color and women, to have a greater say in the policymaking process. A critical component of this is looking at data and other digital tools as one component for building legitimacy and building trust in government, but looking at them beyond just the efficiency aspect. And we're really focused in this book on the effectiveness. So how do you use these technologies in ways that can really engage people in decision making and to show that communities can have a real voice in those decisions?

KH: Are there any cities that you think are doing this effectively right now?

HRG: There are many promising examples in cities with some new roles and positions. Take for example Richmond, Virginia’s new office of community wealth building, to work that's happening right here in Boston with the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, to how Philadelphia’s Participatory Design Lab is giving vulnerable communities a say in how policies are designed that affect them. I think one of the consistent threads in the book is that having that institutional backing really matters, and making sure that there is support inside city hall for these initiatives goes a long way.

KH: If a city is interested in enhancing its engagement capacity, what kind of structure would you recommend?

HRG: It can take a different flavor in each city depending on the political and bureaucratic structure, so there's not one specific position or one specific office that is the right fit necessarily. An important question is: what problem are you solving for and where is there opportunity to genuinely engage your residents in a way that's not just going to be a PR campaign or something that's more passive? Is there an opportunity to engage people in a way that is much more substantive?

KH: Do you think that cities need to change their engagement approach with higher tech things like autonomous vehicles versus more traditional concerns like potholes?

HRG: These are really big issues that are coming down the pike for cities, and I think what we need is not necessarily to change how we do engagement, but to make sure that communities have a voice front and center, especially communities of color and traditionally marginalized voices. We need to empower communities to have a say, whether it's about algorithmic decision making or about how public space is going to be allocated with the rise of autonomous vehicles and the implications the internet of things and connected devices in our cities. Traditionally under-resourced communities may be disproportionately negatively impacted from emerging technologies. Therefore, it is essential to ensure they have a seat front and center at the decision making table.

With these really big policy decisions let's not assume that we can't engage people around complex issues. Instead, let’s think creatively about how we take complex issues and narrow them down and create structured engagement processes to genuinely empower communities that will be most impacted by these technologies. And this requires public officials and people inside city hall being willing to engage, and give up a little bit of their power to collaboratively cocreate solutions with the community. It requires a little bit of a reframing of how you think about that relationship. It's not just the citizen as consumer, but the citizen as an active co-creator of policy.

KH: If you were a mayor or city leader, how would you get everyone at all levels of government to think about engagement as part of their job?

HRG: Engagement has to be something that is both valued and incentivized. If you're working inside city government, this can't just be an additional thing you have to do on top of an already under-resourced, highly demanding job. Unfortunately, that is what often happens. It falls on the shoulders of individuals inside government to just sort of do this because they're passionate about it. Rather, structures need to blend that passion with purpose and to have people be rewarded and incentivized. Demonstrating that engagement is not just this thing that you put after, it's not the cherry on top, it has to be part of the sundae from the beginning, so to speak. It has to be woven into process design so that it's actually tied to how people do their job.

KH: So what would effective engagement look like? How do you know it's successful?

HRG: One way to know if it's successful if you're really engaging an inclusive group of people, beyond the usual suspects, and you're engaging them in a thoughtful, constructive way with some accountability. That doesn’t mean that you're doing everything that the community tells you to necessarily, but it means that there are real decisions on the table. There's some real power, real choices, and if for whatever reason a policy maker can't do the thing that the community wants, there has to be some accountability process to explain why. The result is a constructive process with real tradeoffs that is transparent and builds trust.

KH: Do you have any examples of what a city has done to leverage expertise of communities?

HRG: Absolutely, there are numerous examples. A classic one that I've done a lot of research on is participatory budgeting, where you see people coming out in different communities and identifying very local needs, whether it's transportation, education, parks. There is also a lot of momentum and energy around parks and libraries and around communal spaces. I’ve done research into Philadelphia with colleagues at New America including Chayenne Polimedio and Elena Souris, analyzing where they leveraged the soda tax through the Rebuild initiative, and then had a partnership with philanthropy as part of the rebuilding the civic comments initiative to engage communities in a structured way to redesign their parks and libraries for the 21st century. The residents are the experts in their neighborhoods and they understand what their community needs.

KH: What is your opinion of technical engagement tools like online message boards?

HRG: It can be a part of a holistic strategy. It's about having a well-balanced diet. You can't just have one thing or the other. There are very few online engagement tools that totally replace the need for face-to-face engagement, but I think they can be used as part of a strategy to deepen engagement. They have to be very thoughtful in their approach, in their deployment. One challenge is the disparity around digital literacy -- when you build a tool, are you creating a structure that will reify existing inequalities and preference engagement of some people over others? All these design decisions in person and online have consequences. And so we must be intentional about design.

KH: Are there any other kind of checks or ways that a city should make sure that it's being representative?

HRG: There's a lot. For example; where and when you host meetings, how you get the word out, offering childcare, providing food and transportation stipends. There's not going to be one time that is good for every person. So how do you think about multiple levels of engagement? Doing popups at community centers, at grocery stores, whatever it might be, but how do you make sure you go to communities? It cannot be a passive approach of waiting for people to come to city hall or use the 311 app. It has to be much more intentional than that, and I think we have to experiment. Maybe it's block parties. This fall I was part of a convening by Columbia World Projects at Columbia University where we brought together groups which had formed since the 2016 election. One organization in Texas, called Jolt, is working to organize Latinos across the state; one opportunity they have identified is organizing around quinceañeras. Let’s be open to new opportunities and new places to engage people.

KH: What do you most hope to see related to engagement in the next five years?

HRG: A lot of things. One thing in particular is much more thoughtful and intentional dialogue with communities around some of the technological changes that are impacting them in cities. Whether it's data governance, or where tech companies are locating their headquarters, or the use of algorithms in policy decision making. There is an opportunity to leverage this moment for a hands-on, robust civics education. Let’s make it intergenerational and show that we can use some of these policy decisions that might seem really scary and overwhelming as an opportunity for re-imagining civic engagement.

About the Author

Katherine Hillenbrand

Katherine Hillenbrand is the Assistant Director for Digital Platforms and Practitioner Content at the Ash Center's Innovations in Government program. She has been working on the Data-Smart City Solutions project since 2012 in different roles. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Amherst College and a Master in Public Administration degree from Harvard Kennedy School.