The Engagement Shift

Our civic lives are changing. This change is being driven by new tools and approaches that fall under the umbrella of civic tech—as well as by people who recognize that new tools must serve the enduring aims of democracy. We are seeing a fruitful struggle to apply rapidly changing technology to address the needs and draw on the capacity of all people and put power in their hands.

At last week’s Personal Democracy Forum, tools for mapping online connections in cities and in conversation areas joined the discussion, along with a new effort to reimagine public libraries as digital service providers to fuel civic engagement. We heard about Civic Graph, a new platform created by Microsoft to map network connections in civic tech. We heard about new research into what motivates “interested bystanders” to take civic action, and what holds them back, conducted by Google.

At the recent Ashoka Future Forum, Todd Park, the federal government’s “tech entrepreneur in residence,” commented, “Silicon Valley is hungering for a bigger mission.” Learn about the latest in civic tech at Civicist, and dig into the impact of new tools with A Lever and a Place to Stand: How Civic Tech Can Move the World (supported by the Rita Allen Foundation).

We see richly promising experimentation across the work we support in the field of civic engagement. Last weekend, people in more than 100 communities across the United States came together for the National Day of Civic Hacking, organized by Code for America (whose Fellows program we support). The Seattle Times was just recognized by the Associated Press Media Editors’ Journalism Excellence Awards for Education Lab, the community engagement initiative it created in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network (whose evaluation and knowledge-sharing work we support).

The latest Knight News Challenge, on which we are partnering with the Knight Foundation, the Democracy Fund and the Hewlett Foundation, drew more than 1,000 proposals for improving how voters are informed and engaged in civic issues before, during and after elections—many of the top proposals imagine digital and crowdsourcing tools. Read more about how innovation is lighting up the civic sector in my article in the June issue of Alliance, “Civic Solutions: A New Era for Citizen Feedback” (subscription required).

Our excitement about the possibilities of new approaches and tools extends beyond civic tech. A commitment to listening and building creative responses that meet people’s needs seems to be catching on across the social sector. Our Alliance article on civic tech was part of a whole issue about a new movement to better incorporate feedback in philanthropy.

Along with David Bonbright of Keystone Accountability and Fadel Ndiame of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, we had the privilege of working as guest editors with the remarkable outgoing Alliance editor Caroline Hartnell to shape a collection of stories from people experimenting with new feedback mechanisms across the social sector and around the world. Our partners and colleagues at Feedback Labs and the Fund for Shared Insight are among the contributors. The picture that emerges is, as we say in the introduction, one of blooming and buzzing excitement around a mindset change for how we think of effective philanthropy.

“With feedback bubbling up everywhere, the pressure towards a tipping point is building. This is about something deeper than tools and methods, deeper than capacity gaps, deeper even than structure and systems. It points to what Ashoka calls framework or mindset change—changes in the way we think, in our values and norms, in culture.”

—David Bonbright, Elizabeth Christopherson and Fadel Ndiame, “Feedback as Democracy in Social Change Practice, Alliance, June 2015

Even since the issue went to bed, there has been another key announcement for the social sector’s growing knowledge about how to effectively listen and respond to people. The Fund for Shared Insight (we are core funders along with the Ford, Hewlett, JPB, Kellogg and Packard Foundations and Liquidnet) has just announced Listen for Good, which will provide support to a cohort of nonprofits to strengthen their feedback loops using a new adaptation of the Net Promoter System. The Net Promoter System has transformed how the private sector seeks and responds to customer feedback in recent years, and Listen for Good will be a major step forward in developing simple and effective tools for constituent engagement in the social sector. Look for an RFP for joining Listen for Good this fall.

Ultimately, a deep appreciation for the power of democratic ideals runs through the framework shift we are seeing in many fields, a shift in the direction of participation and engagement. We hope this is just the beginning.

In April, the Rita Allen Foundation’s Board of Directors visited Civic Hall, a new hub for civic tech in New York City created by the folks behind the Personal Democracy Forum. While we were there, Jake Porway of DataKind and I posed a question for discussion that I would put to you also. Dystopian visions of the future will get plenty of attention on megaplex screens this summer. Instead, imagine a utopian future, 5 or 10 years from now, when civic engagement is everything it could be, everything it should be. What do you see? And—what might each of us do to help make it happen?