Old Ways, New Approaches: Reknitting social cohesion in the 21st century

The state of civic engagement in the U.S. today 

by Christina Nemr and Eliza Thompson

A worrying trend is emerging in the United States, namely a decline in public trust. Confidence in major institutions fell to a record low in 2022 as Gallup recorded a significant decline in trust for 11 of 16 major U.S. institutions defined by Gallup, including all three branches of government, organized religion, and television news.

Moreover, uncertain times are increasing in-group mentality and identity-affirming misinformation, resulting in communities that are more divided and less engaged. It certainly doesn’t help that political campaigns and media personalities leverage social mistrust as a tool for success, attempting to take advantage of and further ignite public mistrust and political skepticism. No wonder then that some of the key players in propagating hyper-partisan, divisive rhetoric – Congress members and television news – currently suffer from low institutional trust! 

Alongside the decline in public trust and increased perception of polarization, the U.S. is experiencing declining levels of civic engagement and civic knowledge, as well as fewer community-oriented public and commercial spaces. These spaces come in many different forms, such as parks, libraries, or restaurants, and serve as crucial sources of social connection, helping foster common identity and bipartisan sympathy in an environment seemingly lacking in both. 

Meanwhile, membership across community organizations has decreased substantially in recent decades. Equally worrying, those who do belong to organizations are finding less positive value in them. In a 2017 University of Southern California study, only 28% of Americans said they belonged to any group that had leaders whom they considered both accountable and inclusive.

Given these trends, it should come as no surprise to learn that civic deserts— communities with little to no opportunities for civic engagement — are increasing. A few types of civic institutions have shrunk significantly over the last century, including religious congregations, unions, and metropolitan daily newspapers. Placing this into context, according to the 2017 Civic Health Index, from 1970 to 2012 the proportion of Americans who either attended church or belonged to a union decreased by 20% and those who read a daily newspaper fell by almost 50%. The makeup of political parties also changed greatly during this period, with parties less dependent on local political organizations or volunteers.

The decline in public trust and civic engagement are mutually reinforcing; without trust in government and institutions, citizen engagement is less likely to occur, and when it does it’s less likely to be productive. 

Unfortunately, the country’s disintegrating local media environment risks further exacerbating this decline, with the U.S. losing newspapers at a rate of two per week over the last three years. According to a Northwestern University study, while some communities may see digital replacements, economically struggling or underserved communities have the hardest time sustaining print or digital news organizations, creating a social gap in the flow of reliable and timely information.

A growing body of research demonstrates the importance of access to high-quality, inclusive local news to foster strong civic health in communities. One study conducted by the University of Oregon found a clear link between declining rates of local news organizations and decreased civic engagement. The study also found links to higher rates of polarization and diminishing sense of community connection. Reversing the decline of local media is a difficult task in today’s media landscape, where prominent media figures dominate the space. The business of disinformation can be highly lucrative, motivating the embrace of divisive narratives by many of these prominent figures. 

Where do we go from here?

So amidst trends of declining trust, declining civic engagement, and a declining local media environment, how do we right the ship? Focusing on building civic engagement may be the most effective approach. Why? Here’s what civic engagement encompasses and why it may hold the key to a healthier democracy.

Civic engagement broadly refers to the process of individuals actively engaging in their communities, building relationships and addressing issues that affect them. Similar concepts include citizen engagement, community engagement, and participatory governance. While distinct on their own, these terms generally allude to the notion of providing citizens with both information and an opportunity to exchange ideas and invest in finding solutions to community issues. 

Effective civic engagement involves all facets of community, from local community leaders to government. It encompasses political activities like voting or participating in local council meetings but is much broader than that. Volunteer activities like helping out with a food bank, or getting involved in education groups all have positive implications for tying citizens to their communities.

Civic engagement that does involve governments, either at the local, state, or national level, can be a key element in helping build and maintain trust between government and constituents. Citizens tend to trust governments they perceive to be communicative, transparent, responsive, and reliable—all attributes that tend to arise when governments actively solicit citizenry engagement and involvement. Simply soliciting citizen engagement is not enough, however. Engagement without follow-through or accountability is simply a performance, and one that will negatively impact trust.

Furthermore, a study from late 2022 showed that people who are more engaged in their communities are better equipped to protect themselves from misinformation. Citizens who are disengaged from their local communities are less apt to know what is happening around them and may have less trust in processes like elections. Mis- and disinformation tend to flourish in such environments.

Of course, a key element in helping keep citizens informed is the existence of local media, which again leads to mutually reinforcing events. Those who are more engaged in their communities are more likely to find value in local news, while those who follow the local news more closely are more likely to engage in civic activities like voting. Improving civic engagement, it seems, could well be the key in building sustainable support for local media.

Civic engagement in practice

While civic engagement in the U.S. is on the decline, discrepancies in the types of engagement may reveal ways to improve future efforts. For example, only 14% of Americans volunteered for a group or cause and only 12% attended a community meeting based on surveys conducted in 2018. However, less time-intensive activities like signing an online petition or posting about an issue of interest on social media had slightly higher engagement (28 and 23%, respectively). Digital engagement takes less effort so it makes sense that it’d have higher engagement than in-person activities. Yet, reversing the trend of declining civic engagement will require new ways of leveraging digital engagement while still encouraging in-person interaction. So what examples can we draw from to initiate a new model of civic engagement fit for 2023 and beyond?

Efforts at the local level in the U.S. reveal some approaches. A town in Ohio leveraged a hybrid approach to engage youth and senior residents (both underrepresented demographics), signing up these residents to a platform where they could submit ideas directly on town planning proposals. In Kentucky, stakeholders organized a virtual town hall to help set the agenda for subsequent in-person workshops. The virtual town hall used open source software Pol.is which encourages constructive conversation and amplifies consensus for policy creation – to determine priorities and sentiments, helping facilitate more focused physical gatherings. 

Internationally, UNESCO has prioritized youth-led civic engagement solutions that center on strengthening youth capacities and delivering youth-centered solutions to regional challenges. One initiative in Ghana, the Civic-Care project, developed youth-friendly messaging on issues such as Covid-19 and disseminated the messaging across social media platforms. The project also set up physical townhall type settings for young people to engage in policy discussions, as well as youth-initiated civic online platforms offering safe spaces for engagement. In a similar program, the Nigeria-based Centre for Sustainable Development and Education in Africa implemented town hall programming based on mediation and reflective dialogue principles to strengthen transparency and accountability between local governments and their constituents. 

Meanwhile, Taiwan is leading the way on effective uses of technology to help reduce the distance between officials and citizens. Its lauded approach to civic engagement in recent years has helped it overcome extremely low public trust, as well as foreign disinformation campaigns against the government. Led by the Minister of Digital Affairs, the public and private sector have collaboratively cultivated tech innovation as a means of improving civic engagement

Emerging from these efforts are multiple civic engagement platforms in Taiwan that use the exchange of information to promote citizen involvement in the policy process. The citizen hackers of Taiwan’s g0v movement also use open source software Pol.is to help illuminate policy priorities and consensus. Another platform, Join, looks to encourage participation in policy creation by serving as a regular channel for citizens to participate in governance. Additionally, the platform vTaiwan provides a similar space for citizens to discuss how to formulate or modify policy, focusing on local laws and ordinances.

What is worth emulating?

Taiwan’s efforts in particular are notable for a couple reasons. First, the various processes through which they engage their citizenry tend to result in actionable policy-making. Once the platform makes clear where consensus lies on a particular issue, recommendations can be incorporated into legislation on which parliament then votes. While this process may not happen as often as advocates may wish, the model itself is one to emulate. The follow-through shows transparency and responsiveness, two things that help foster trust between governments and their citizens, and which also grant citizens a sense of agency. Of note, highlighting consensus may also help decrease partisanship, which can in turn lead to more equitable and bipartisan policy. For example, a recent study by Stanford University demonstrated the positive impact that highlighting a common cross-partisan identity can have on reducing partisan animosity.

Second, Taiwan centers innovative technology platforms in its outreach to citizens. Join and vTaiwan are accessible and user-friendly platforms that take away the friction of participating in civic engagement. Furthermore, their use of Pol.is offers a more constructive and engaging way of highlighting where citizens have agreement on certain issues. Focusing on broad consensus is one approach to tamp down on an online culture that thrives on pitting people against each other, particularly on digital platforms like social media. While this emphasis on digital engagement may leave out those who do not have internet access or a smartphone, there are ways to extend basic engagement functions to SMS, as well as use digital engagement to foster in-person activities.

A New Age of Civic Engagement

What are the lessons we can take away from both the research and practice? Civic engagement offers citizens the opportunity to understand and influence local policies, priorities, and solutions, giving them a sense of agency in shaping their surroundings. When done in good faith, it is a boon to trust in government and a bulwark against divisive rhetoric and misleading information. 

In today’s age with limitless digital entertainment, community engagement and policy development are not always the most exciting set of activities, particularly for younger citizens who haven’t partaken in such efforts and may not have a baseline for what it entails. It is important therefore to consider ways to bring civic engagement firmly into the digital age, boosting its prominence and improving the health of democracy along the way. Such approaches should center around the following principles:

1) Link civic engagement to actual results: Governments that implement civic engagement elements but are less than transparent about their intent or do not follow through on the outcomes of activities risk losing the trust of their constituents – the exact opposite of what civic engagement is meant to achieve. Civic engagement activities, especially those led by governments at the national, state, or local level, must be transparent and include a mechanism for follow-through and accountability. 

2) Integrate online and offline activities: Some of the more inventive ways we’ve seen civic engagement activities implemented involve mostly online approaches. This is a key element but civic engagement must also incorporate or offer pathways to offline activities as well. For example, organizations can initiate citizenry engagement through dedicated digital fora to align on issue sets; once a thriving online community emerges, they can then organize in-person events to continue nurturing relationships, tied back to the community. This could serve as a lifeline for civic deserts across the country, helping reinvigorate community engagement. 

3) Leverage innovative technology: Building a successful civic engagement platform for the digital age can be thought of as building out a new model for social media. You’re interacting with a community of people on a variety of subjects, providing personal perspectives and ways to connect with others. Existing social media platforms provide ample lessons on creating spaces for conversations, constructive or otherwise. Civic engagement platforms should build on the lessons learned to offer features that emphasize positive interactions. The Pol.is platform is one approach that applies some of these lessons well – by focusing on amplifying consensus and minimizing the ability for free-form comments and replies, it helps cut through the noise and toxicity of traditional social media. 

4) Incentivize engagement: There’s no getting around the fact that civic engagement isn’t particularly fun for most people, particularly if you’re younger and surrounded by an abundance of entertainment and social media competing for your attention. Stakeholders should therefore consider how they might provide some sort of incentivization to encourage engagement. Some ways to do so include offering small gift cards or working with local businesses to offer discounts. Another, perhaps controversial, way could be to pay citizens outright for their involvement. While this is an approach that has been suggested for improving political ignorance, it may be worth exploring for civic engagement more broadly. It’s important to not make financial incentivization the key feature of a civic engagement strategy however, lest the engagement turn into unsustainable, short-term activities buoyed only by transactional relationships. Moreover, incentivization doesn’t need to be financial — using platforms like Pol.is which are engaging and meaningful can be the only incentive you need to attract and maintain user interaction. Tying user interaction and engagement back to actual follow-through and results can also be incentive enough. Who doesn’t like the feeling of knowing they’ve been heard and acknowledged?

With more Americans feeling socially isolated while lacking trust in our political and media institutions, now is the time to rebuild our social infrastructure around a new approach to civic engagement. Thoughtful mechanisms of engagement that nurture communities around local issues and collective solutions can help improve social bonding while increasing societal cohesion. Plus it’s an ever-timely issue as we fast approach a new election cycle in 2024.

We may be in a new era of increasing online engagement but online and in-person communities don’t have to be an either/or game – in fact, civic engagement activities are strongest when they incorporate elements of both. What’s important is incorporating a clear strategy into the local design and implementation of civic engagement initiatives. Let’s meet today’s local communities where they are, give them fun tools for constructive collaboration, and pave the way for civic engagement fit for the 21st century.

Author Biographies

Christina Nemr is the founder and CEO of Becera, a company that applies emerging technologies to bridge the public and private sectors in addressing challenges in the information environment. She has worked on community engagement-related policy and programming for over a decade in collaboration with governments, civil society, academia, and the private sector, focusing on mitigating the factors that increase polarization and conflict. She started her career with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Counterterrorism, where she was a founding member of a counter-extremism program. She has degrees in International Relations and Forensic Psychology.

Eliza Thompson is a tech policy and public affairs specialist with experience implementing projects for local and national governments, civil society, and academia working in the information resiliency space. As senior advisor for Becera, Eliza works with the public and private sectors to design tech-based solutions to address complex challenges around civic engagement, media, and elections. She has an MSc in European Policy with a concentration in extremism from the London School of Economics and a BA with honors in Political Science from Stanford University.

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