The Cycle of Engagement

A New Framework for Understanding Civic Life in America

Chris Scott
Jun 12, 2018 · 11 min read

This post introduces the Cycle of Engagement, a new framework for understanding the stages of how Americans engage in civic life today. The New Data Project recently made this research public during a talk at the 2018 NewFounders Conference in Chicago.

Today, we’re sharing it online for the first time.

The New Data Project was formed in 2017 to build better tools for civic engagement and improve the data that drives progressive causes and campaigns. We are a product organization, and our focus is on building digital tools that not only make civic action easier, but also more rewarding, inclusive, and sustained.

Last year, our product development process kicked off with what you might expect: user research. While we expected this initial research sprint would produce insights towards building a better product, we didn’t anticipate that it would also lead us to deeper learnings about the nature of civic engagement today in America.

We’ve spoken with people around the country, tested our products with users, and gut checked what we’ve found with experts like Lisa Garcia Bedolla, Kate Krontiris, Allison Anoll, and Hahrie Han.

In the process, we think we’ve uncovered lessons that stand to benefit not just our work, but also that of other teams designing civic engagement campaigns and technology.

Today, I’d like to share a few of those lessons back to the ecosystem, with the hope that what we’ve learned can help the progressive space be more effective at getting people off the sidelines, and — even more importantly — keeping people engaged over the long haul.

Approaching this research

We started this work deeply inspired by the outpouring of civic participation in the wake of the 2016 election.

Hundreds of thousands of people began showing up to marches, writing letters, making phone calls, and even running for office. People across America rolled up their sleeves and got to work — many for the first time ever, and many without anyone telling them what to do. In these last 18 months we’ve seen democracy at its best.

But we also knew this historic uptick of involvement presented a tremendous challenge: now that so many have entered the arena, how do we get them to stay?

Now that so many have entered the arena, how do we get them to stay?

Over the course of several months, Ayla Newhouse, Sara Al Mughairy, and I attempted to answer this question, starting by talking to people across the country.

We interviewed everyday Americans, grassroots activists, and progressive organizations, big and small. We spoke with people all along the civic engagement spectrum, from those who had never participated to those who had run for office. Our research even took us out to the frontlines of change, working in Virginia, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Arizona for historic elections where we witnessed a beautiful resurgence of progressive candidates and values.

As we began to process what we were hearing and observing, we realized that the people we met not only had complex relationships with civic engagement, but that their civic lives often occupied an interesting paradox.

Dozens of interviews and hundreds of sticky notes later… several important stories and lessons.

There were people like the woman from Chicago, who ran for local office in her 30s, but now in her 50s, feels so unengaged that she rarely votes. And a young person of color from Florida who grew up thinking he could never do something meaningful in his community until the uptick in hate crimes that took place after the 2016 election. And a woman from Washington, DC, who while working in the White House, never voted for her building’s condo board.

As we started making sense of these stories, we began to uncover some important findings:

  • People’s relationship with civic engagement can change greatly over time.
  • People from different backgrounds and communities often relate to civic engagement very differently.
  • People engage differently in different parts of their personal and professional lives.

Modelling civic engagement

Civic engagement is often conceptualized as a ladder

To understand these findings, we looked to existing models to map out what we learned. This led us to a concept you might already be familiar with — the Ladder of Engagement.

It is the framework that has defined the way many understand how someone goes from being a bystander to being an activist.

The Ladder paints a linear picture of civic engagement — where someone starts at a lesser rung and moves their way up. It also paints a static image, in the sense that once they ascend to a new rung, their level of engagement remains constant before they advance to the next.

While we think models like the Ladder of Engagement offer important perspectives for this work, we didn’t think it captured the complexity, nuance, and the frequent contradictions we repeatedly encountered.

Eventually, we determined that we needed a way to better visualize the complicated nature of civic life, such that we could begin to identify the emotions, motivations, experiences, and relationships that enable sustained engagement over time.

So, to answer our own questions, we created a new framework for understanding civic engagement.

The Cycle of Engagement

Below is what we call the Cycle of Engagement. This is our new model for understanding the stages of how Americans engage in civic life today.

While we created this framework for ourselves, we believe it offers an enhanced perspective that could be useful for other organizations and individuals working in this space, too.

How it works

You’ll notice there are two sides of the cycle: the loop on the left explains the patterns of people who remain disengaged. And on the right, there’s a loop which explains the patterns of people who engage and stay engaged.

Because we’re especially interested in increasing engagement, we spent most of our time exploring the concepts on the right.

Let’s walk through the cycle in a little more detail:

  1. Avoidance (light purple): Many people often begin here— unengaged and unsure of what to do about it.
  2. Learning (teal): This is where someone begins to learn about issues and starts to build a personal competence toward taking action.
  3. Considering Action (green): This is where someone evaluates what role they have as a civic participant and searches for the right opportunities to engage.
  4. The Ask (light blue): This is where someone is invited to do something, either by another person or organization, or because they feel internally called to act.
  5. Getting Engaged (orange): After answering the call to act, this is where we see people taking initial civic actions, such as coming out to a march, making a call to their Senator, or signing an online petition.
  6. Commitment/Sustainment (dark blue): After taking their initial action, this is where someone makes a commitment to doing more and finds a way to sustain. This is where we want more people to be.
  7. Evaluation/Reflection (dark purple): This is where someone evaluates what they did and if it mattered. This leads to a fork near the end of the cycle where some people take the time to rest, recover, and take action again, and some feel burned out and regress back into inaction.

This new model of engagement gives us a framework to identify where people are blocked from taking action or going further. It also acknowledges that someone’s level of engagement can vary greatly and change overtime. And most importantly, it helps us begin to clearly see opportunities to do additional work so that we can get more people to stay engaged.

What we’ve learned

We think the Cycle presents some exciting implications for the work of helping people to stay engaged.

In this post, I’ll share three of our favorites.

Lesson 1 | Anger isn’t enough. We have to get people to hope.

The first dimension we looked at across the cycle was emotions, and perhaps the emotion we are all most familiar with right now is anger. We’ve got a lot of it going around — it is fueling our progressive resistance. And for good reason.

But look at where anger falls on the cycle:

Anger is only a starting point.

It is only a starting point. Anger alone is an exhausting posture to maintain, and it won’t sustain us. The people who persist will need to feel motivated by more than just anger.

An Activist we spoke to in Seattle affirmed this for us:

“In the beginning people just showed up because they were angry. But now I need to find a way to get people interested again, maybe make it more positive and upbeat. People get tired of everything being so depressing.”

To help people stay, we will need to understand what kinds of emotional support they’ll need along the remainder of the cycle, emotions like passion, excitement, empowerment, and — crucially — hope.

We can look to history to see that the most successful movements don’t simply get us to resist. They also cast a vision of the future that people can believe in. They inspire us to dream of a different world, and that’s why our work is so different from that of Republicans, or as my friend DeRay Mckesson said during our interview with him,

“As progressives, the goal really is to take people to a world we’ve never seen before.”

This takes thoughtful and intentional work. To get people to stay engaged, we’ve got to help them imagine the world we want to create, not with a 9-point policy agenda, but in clear terms, and in a way that leaves people hopeful about and bought in to this vision of the future.

Lesson 2 | People need to feel like they matter.

To deepen engagement, people need to perceive that their participation matters and will actually lead to meaningful change for themselves and their communities.

Feeling like you matter is important at the beginning of the cycle when someone is Considering Action — typically starting from a place of self-interest or a desire to address an issue that is personal to their life.

Feeling like you matter is important both before and after you engage.

It’s also important at Getting Engaged after the initial action — they’ve attended a march, advocated for a cause online, or even voted for the first time.

At this point, people are seeking a sense of personal fulfillment that is linked to how they perceive what they did — do they think what they did was effective at creating change? Did it make them feel accomplished? And importantly, did they find new relationships or gain social capital? These are all things that help people feel the purpose, meaning, and emotional fulfillment that help them know that they matter.

We repeatedly heard stories of folks who were not convinced that their contribution mattered in the bigger picture. These are also people who lead very busy lives and think our political system isn’t the place where meaningful change happens, at least not for the things that they care about. Their inaction, therefore, should not surprise us. It is a rational decision.

Lisa Garcia Bedolla made this clear to us when she said,

It’s not that people are lazy. It’s not that they don’t care. It’s that they think they don’t have the power to do anything.”

Participation without any sense of power is an empty and frustrating experience. This is why many people, especially those without an existing sense of power in our political process, do not persist in their engagement.

This is especially true for marginalized people, people of color, and young people — all groups whose voices we need now more than ever.

But there are some things we can do to help people feel like they matter.

To get people to stay engaged, we can help them understand how their participation benefits themselves, not us. Furthermore, we can help people take action in ways that align with their self interest, their unique skills, and their real motivations, and not just what we think they should do. And once they’ve taken action and gotten engaged, we can help them deepen and sustain their engagement by highlighting the progress against the outcomes they care about, and notably the people they care about.

And that brings us to our third lesson.

Lesson 3 | We need to strengthen relationships.

Our research found that strong relationships are critical to sustaining civic engagement.

Movements are made of human to human connections. It’s those relationships that make people feel part of something. This connection to people who share our values and our identities builds new relationships and strengthens existing ones. Because people often act on behalf of their community, relationships are what motivate them to care and make meaning of their actions.

When relationships deepen, people begin to understand not just their individual power, but also their collective power. And this power, when spread across a network, creates a momentum that pulls in a lot more people.

On the cycle, there are 3 critical places where strong relationships make the difference:

Civic engagement is driven by relationships.

First, The Ask. This can come from someone in a person’s life who invites them to participate, an organization with an opportunity to get involved, or from a more internal motivation to benefit their community.

It also matters at Commitment/Sustainment: Any organizer reading this will know the adage, “volunteers come for the candidate, and stay for the organizer.” We need other people to help us dig in. We need other people to hold us accountable. We need other people to commit to.

Lastly, relationships matter in Recovery: After someone has worked hard, they’re going to need other folks to pat them on the back. To support them. And remind them that they belong in this work. Without support someone can easily slip down to burnout.

Simon Sinek said this best,

“When you look out and find people who believe in the same things you do, those people become brothers and sisters in that moment. And it is those experiences which inspire people to do it again and again.”

To keep people engaged, we’re going to have to put and keep relationships at the heart of this work.

Looking ahead

So what are we doing with what all of this?

Our team has channeled everything we’ve learned into building our first product: VoteWithMe. As we’ve built this product, we’ve tried to leverage the power of emotions, help people see how and why they matter, and unlock the potential of peer-to-peer relationships. Stay tuned for future posts about VoteWithMe and how this research has come into play throughout our product development process.

We know we’re not the first or the only ones doing this work. In sharing this research, it is our intention to be contributors to a broader movement — of organizers, campaigns, and tech teams — working hard to advance the progressive agenda and keep people engaged.

There are all kinds of conversations and experiments going on right now to unlock more civic engagement in America, and we hope this model can enhance the thinking of anyone working to build that future we’ve never seen before.

As we approach the 2018 midterms, the 2020 presidential election, and beyond, we would love to hear what these lessons mean for you and your work.

In the current climate, causes and campaigns too often lack the time, expertise, and flexibility to work beyond immediate deadlines. The New Data Project (NDP) is a new 501(c)(4) organization built to address this gap by testing new approaches, looking beyond the current cycle, and serving as an advanced technology research lab for progressives.

NDP Annotations

Blog posts from the staff of The New Data Project, building technology for persistent democracy.

Chris Scott

Written by

Design Researcher + Strategist. #avgeek. Coffee Guy. Currently: Design w/ @alloydotus. Formerly: @newdataproject, @TechnoServe, @BoozAllen, and @NewSector.

NDP Annotations

Blog posts from the staff of The New Data Project, building technology for persistent democracy.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade