Some Thoughts on Civic Engagement and Technology

Recently I participated in a panel discussion, sponsored by Zocalo Public Square, titled “We Need to Talk: Solving California’s Civic Engagement Problem.” It was an interesting discussion, but one of the things that really struck me during both the formal discussion as well as the informal conversation with audience members at a reception afterwards, was how much people are looking for technology to improve civic engagement.

Interestingly, the next morning I read in the news that Amazon had just reported what seemed to me to be a clear technology tipping-point: for every 100 print books that Amazon had recently sold, they were selling 105 Kindle ebooks. You see it all around, people are shifting away from reading books and other content (newspapers and magazines) in paper, and towards reading that content on a wide variety of digital platforms, including computers, tablets, specialized ebook readers, and smartphones.

The trend away from paper is one that anyone who wants to improve civic engagement needs to pay attention to, and that includes election officials. Clearly, materials aimed at informing citizens and voters need to be made available in usable and portable digital format — which at this point typically will be PDF. This is happening, as all types of election information can now be found, though sometimes unfortunately with a bit of effort, in PDF format online.

Yet the challenge today is that many people want more, especially younger citizens and voters. They will increasingly want more than a static PDF file; instead they are going to want digital content that is interactive and engaging. As one young audience member said to me at the reception following the Zocalo event, when we were talking about voter information booklets that we get in the mail prior to an election, “There should be an App for that.”

And he’s right, there should be an App for that.

The challenge will increasingly be to transform materials like voter information booklets into engaging and interactive digital materials. Citizens should have digital content that they can interact with so that they can get the information they need, in a format that is usable and approachable for them. Voter information booklets need to be transformed into platforms that citizens can use to become informed and engaged. Data needs to be provided to the public in formats that can be analyzed, manipulated, and integrated with other data — not as pages and pages of PDF. And all of this information has to be provided so that it can be downloaded easily to portable digital devices.

These are big challenges, especially in an era of limited government resources. But if we want to engage citizens and voters, that’s going to require significant changes in the provision of information, especially in the provision of information electronically.