Civic engagement is broken

The threat of passive democracy and why tech can help

To put civic engagement in context, it is important to understand its ties with the current democratic system. “Solving” civic engagement will not “solve” democracy. But it will have effects on specific aspects that are necessary to be aware of for a better prioritization in the work for social good.

Athenian assembly where all citizens were participating

Looking back at the original ancient democracy, the Athenian’s stands out first by its influence as the fundamental model that shaped the current political system, but also by its devotion to absolute citizen participation. All citizens were invited to the public assembly to participate in debates, propose new laws, and vote.

If this pure participative democracy seemed to be working in such small public administration, one can easily understand its scalability issue in the US with a voting-age population of more than 230M citizen. How can you make millions of citizens debate and vote at the same time?

It is in this context of finding the right balance between participation and efficiency that the current political system has shifted to representativity, with representants elected by citizens to vote and make the decisions.
But centralization of power, if it has its advantages, doesn’t completely solve the scalability issue. With a population that is growing and diversifying in many ways [1] [2] [3], it gets harder and harder for governments to listen and understand all its population.
This is why another form of civic engagement emerged: the volunteering/work in civic organizations (NGO, charities, journalism) that influence the governments in place and raise the additional concerns missed due to the lack of bandwidth.

Oversimplification of the different types of citizen engagement

As Thomas Ehrlich said: “Civic engagement means working to make a difference in the civic life of our communities and developing the combination of knowledge, skills, values, and motivation to make that difference. It means promoting the quality of life in a community, through both political and non-political processes.”. It means voting at the polls, but also protest on the street, volunteering in an NGO or simply help plant flowers in the public park.

The current political engagement is broken

Political engagement is threatened because of three factors: mobilization, representation, attention.

It is no secret that the number of people voting at every election is dropping. Although it is not obvious in a short timeframe, the difference with decades ago is visible with a drop of ~10%:

But even if citizens wanted to go to vote, they feel less represented by their politicians than before. In the U.S., more than 40% of the population now considers itself as independent politically:

An interesting data visualization that could be correlated is the bi-partisan vote in the Congress illustrating how reduced the opinion landscape has become:

Bi-partisan vote in the Congress between 1981 and 2011 showing the progressive homogeneity

Finally even if citizens were willing to act and identifying with a candidate, an attention issue remains. As an example, half of Internet users who did not contact Congress said the reason they did not do so was that they felt that their representatives do not care about what they have to say:

The current social engagement cannot keep up

Naturally, in this context of bad political engagement, citizens have no choice but to prioritize social engagement.

One can say that it is a good thing. Looking at the new grassroots movements such as Black Lives Matter, this engagement is not less good than another one. But it is difficult for this type of spontaneous and energy movement to unite and act as one voice without spreading out too much in order to have the best impact. Grassroots movements need to gain structure and organization in order to have the best positive impact on the public life.

Problem is, in organized and measurable NGOs, volunteering is also dropping:

Civic engagement is facing three main issues

To resume what has been assessed previously, there are three challenges to tackle for a better civic engagement today:

  1. Enhance the relation between citizen and governments by attacking the problems of mobilization, representation, and attention
  2. Enable grassroots movements to structure and organize for better impact
  3. Enable NGOs to manage their supporters and prevent demobilization

New technologies can help solve those problems

If there are multiple ways to tackle this issues, one that I found very interesting was by leveraging new technologies. Especially, Internet is is the first infrastructure with which the cost of emission and reception of information is the same.
Current institutions and organizations are working with very traditional (if not outdated) technologies requiring high resources and with functioning processes completely opaque (centralized and with one-way interactions) and uncentered from the key user: the citizen.

The Black Lives Matter hashtag lived outside the virtual world

With the Internet, there are improved and brand new civic tools to outreach online. All the different levels of citizen engagement now cost less money, energy and time, whether we want to access to information, build an opinion, debate with a network, donate to a party or contact elected people to engage.
Historically, the most popular game-changing use of the Internet is as a new communication channel. Citizens around the world are building collective intelligence and engagement platforms by using digital medias like Twitter, YouTube, or Facebook. A great example of this phenomenon is the #BlackLivesMatter movement since 2013, using social platforms to collect information, share opinions and organize actions with limited human, financial and time resources.

But today, many new tools are showing how much broader technology usage can be, and how they are actually able to help on civic engagement:

  • Open Data services (catalyzed by organization like Code for America and startups like OpenGov) are enhancing the transparency and trust relation between governments and citizens
  • Bottom-up platforms working at a global level (Change.org) but also local (Nextdoor) are amplifying the voice of citizen and grassroots, enabling them to act collectively.
  • SaaS companies offering all the tools for organizations to better manage their campaigns and volunteers (NationBuilder), and even advocacy (FiscalNote)

If leveraged efficiently, technology can become central to the strategy of a civic organization. In fact, for the major ones, it already been for years.


This article is the first piece of a serie on the future of civic tech and citizen engagement.
It completes my study
“Can Civic Tech Save Democracy? How technology is renewing civic engagement” written for L’Atelier BNP Paribas and published last December.