Essay IV: How Citizens Are Trying to Matter in 21st Century Democracy

Democracy and citizenship continue to evolve, spurred by new threats and new opportunities. In order to exert some control over these changes, we need to understand the nature of the threats and how they developed, the shifts in how people are thinking about politics and community, and the democracy innovators and innovations that are emerging today. This series of essays, to be released weekly in advance of The Future of Citizenship: The 2023 Annual Conference on Citizenship, will help set the stage for a national discussion on where our country is headed.

By Matt Leighninger and Quixada Moore-Vissing

The future of democracy and citizenship is likely to be dominated by two forces: the growing sophistication of the “subconscious technologies” described in the previous essay, and the increasing determination among citizens to make their actions and opinions matter in public life, which could be called “conscious engagement.” (In this series of essays and for the conference, we are defining “citizenship” broadly – it includes everyone, not just people who are citizens in a narrow legal sense.)

Conscious engagement is driven by the desire to matter. Citizens seem less inclined to pursue some of the traditional opportunities for engagement, such as attending official public meetings, perhaps they do not feel heard in those settings. Instead, people are pursuing new avenues for engagement and taking advantage of new technologies to do so. A common theme of these forms of participation is that they seem to fit the needs and motivations of citizens more than other opportunities.

There are five ways in which, over the last decade in particular, citizens have been pursuing new ways of mattering:

1. Circulating neighborhood information

Over the last ten years, participation in “hyperlocal” online networks has grown exponentially. These are vehicles for online communication centered on a particular neighborhood, housing development, small town, or school. The first examples were email listservs and Facebook group pages, followed by customized platforms like in Minnesota and Front Porch Forum in Vermont. Newer resources like Common Agency and PlaceSpeak add features that support face-to-face organizing and influencing local policy decisions. By far the largest is Nextdoor, which now maintains social networks in 90 percent of all American neighborhoods, with 42 million active users.

These different platforms vary in a number of ways. The simplest of them, such as the email lists, are generally open to all subscribers (whether or not they live in the neighborhood). The others are typically open only to the residents of those neighborhoods. Some of the earlier platforms, such as, were sustained through grants and donations. Others, like Nextdoor, follow the financial model of Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms, and sell space on the platform to advertisers.

But while those distinctions may be important to how the networks operate, their explosive growth seems based on the fact that they offer people several key reasons to participate: these platforms are convenient and easy to use, they allow for interaction, they deepen and complement face-to-face relationships, they help people react to natural disasters, and they give people a sense of membership. They provide a forum for discussing incidents of crime in the neighborhood and for advertising the upcoming block party. In so doing they help people solve basic daily challenges: members may talk about what the school board did, or what the mayor said, but they also ask questions like “Who knows a good plumber they can recommend?” and “Has anyone seen my lost cat?”

2. Contributing money, ideas, and time

A number of technologies have emerged that facilitate citizens’ desire to contribute to plans, causes, and campaigns. Crowdfunding platforms provide an easy way for people to donate money, even in very small increments. They first gained prominence during the 2008 presidential campaign, when Barack Obama raised hundreds of millions of dollars through his campaign website, with an average donation of $68. During the 2018 campaign, the progressive crowdfunding platform ActBlue raised $1 billion. Some platforms have extended beyond financial donations, allowing people to donate their volunteer time for causes they care about – Ioby is one of the organizations that pioneered this concept, and they call it “crowd-resourcing.”

Platforms for crowdsourcing, also known as “ideation,” allow people to propose solutions to a specific problem or ideas for a plan, then comment on the things other people proposed, and rank all the ideas. Wiki-based technologies, made famous by Wikipedia, allow large numbers of people to contribute and edit text. The government of Iceland even used a Wiki technology to try to crowd-source its constitution in 2012. The government of Italy introduced a new citizen initiative tool that engaged 500,000 Italians.

But the fact that citizens can make these sorts of contributions doesn’t necessarily mean that public institutions will be able to use them. In the Icelandic case, the new constitution was approved by two-thirds of the voters in a nationwide referendum, but did not receive the necessary votes in Iceland’s Parliament. For citizen ideas, donations, and volunteer commitments to be accepted, enacted, or supported, other political conditions have to be in place; either leaders have to want these contributions, or be under enough public pressure that they feel they have to accept them, or both.

3.Voting directly on public decisions

As citizens express greater desire to have a say on the issues they care about, digital technologies have emerged that make direct voting more convenient and secure. Some of these technologies are now being used in regular elections; in the 2018 midterms, the state of West Virginia collaborated with Voatz to test a mobile app that uses facial recognition to verify voter identity and blockchain to keep voting documents secure.

Other digital voting approaches are designed to move beyond binary decisions: elections cause us to choose between Choice A and Choice B, while many of us actually want Choice C, or Choices A and D. Advocates like Jon Barnes argue for processes that are more fluid and allow citizens to propose policy options before they are voted on, as in the Italian case mentioned above. “We have the technology which could democratize and decentralize democracy, [make] the network sovereign, and [wrestle] power from the political elite,” claims Barnes. Finally, practitioners of “liquid democracy” have invented systems that allow citizens either to vote on issues directly or give their voting power to a trusted party, such as an expert they respect on the subject at hand.

Blockchain is a key element of many new processes for digital voting, but its use has been controversial. The Brookings Institution wrote earlier this year that tested, high quality mobile voting platforms have the potential to eliminate voter fraud, encourage more voter participation, streamline the process of counting votes, support transparent election processes, ensure all votes are counted, and minimize the cost of conducting elections. Some experts claim that although digital voting may not be foolproof, neither are our current systems, and that the potential for access alone should encourage us to think carefully about adopting blockchain-based voting. Other skeptics worry that digital divides could exacerbate inequalities in access to voting. Timothy Lee claims that digital voting could open us up to election interference by foreign countries, including hacking our votes on our cell phones and imitation apps or links that make us think we’ve voted when we haven’t.

4. Deliberating and connecting

There are many processes and platforms for conscious engagement that give people opportunities to share experiences, learn about issues, discuss policy options, and plan for action. These strategies have been used in countless communities, on many different issues; they have flown under the radar because they are so diffuse and diverse, because they are organized by different institutions or organizations in different places, and because they have occurred primarily at the local level.

The first wave of these innovations, consisting mainly of face-to-face processes and meeting formats, began in the 1990s. These included large-scale dialogues on race and difference in cities like Los Angeles, processes focused on school reform in states like Connecticut, Nebraska and Kentucky, and hundreds of local projects that involved residents in planning and land use decisions.

Online platforms for dialogue and deliberation were part of the wave of innovation in digital engagement that began during the 2000s. Among the most notable examples were the Citizen’s Forum in Germany, Taiwan’s use of, and the “Text, Talk, Engage” activity within President Obama’s National Dialogue on Mental Health.

Finally, a new variation of this deliberative work proliferated in the years right before the pandemic: regular gatherings centered on food. Small-town examples such as “Meet and Eat” spread throughout West Virginia, while the largest recurring case, “On the Table” in Chicago, reached a high of 105,000 participants in 2017. These food-focused forms of engagement are starting to resurge again.

Some of these varieties of deliberative democracy have energized participants and produced impacts ranging from volunteer projects to policy changes. Others have fallen short, often because public officials were unable or unwilling to implement the recommendations made by participants.

5. Spending public money

The ability to decide how public money should be spent is the animating force behind participatory budgeting (PB), perhaps the fastest growing form of public engagement in the world. PB was first developed in 13 Brazilian cities in the late 1980s, of which Porto Alegre became the most famous example. In one form or another, PB has since been implemented in over 3,000 cities on six continents. It has been adopted as a mandatory form of local decision-making by federal governments in Peru, the Dominican Republic, Kenya, South Korea, Indonesia, and the Philippines. City councilmembers in over half the districts in New York City devote over $1 million each to PB every year.

These processes begin each fall with neighborhood assemblies to generate ideas for spending the money. Residents can then become budget delegates to refine the ideas with help from city staff and other experts. In the spring there is an idea expo and then a vote, open to all district residents, to allocate the funds among the project ideas. In cities like Paris, the PB process has many online elements, and a number of digital PB platforms have been developed worldwide.

In the original Brazilian examples, PB processes have had quantifiable positive impacts on poverty, infant mortality, tax compliance, and trust in government. However, as PB has proliferated around the globe, its core principles and practices have changed and diversified, and so its impacts have become difficult to predict from one setting to the next.

Why mattering matters

A key ingredient in the success of all these forms of engagement is that that they produce feelings of “mattering,” which is defined as “the extent to which people believe they make a difference in the world around them.”

In the fields of mental health and youth development, the impacts of mattering have been quantified: when young people actively participate in making decisions, studies have found they demonstrate more confidence, agency, empowerment, and community connections. In contrast, when young people do not feel they matter in their families or community, they are more prone to physical violence or even suicide. Similarly, when citizens do not feel their voices matter, particularly when they have made the effort to consciously engage, it can breed frustration, disengagement, distrust, and in extreme cases, violence.

Subconscious technologies and conscious engagement

The next few essays in this series will explore how subconscious technologies and conscious engagement are likely to collide or coalesce. These technologies could give institutions and organizations greater legitimacy and approval if people like the services, choices, and decisions that result and understand how they came about – or it could cause a tremendous backlash if people don’t trust the technologies or the people directing them.

This balance between approval and backlash is precarious because when we are acting consciously in public life, we want more than the constrained choices, lack of transparency, and limited rights we have traditionally been given. Citizens are dramatically more skilled, literate, and confident than we were a century ago. We are connected and knowledgeable but lonely and angry. We are forming personal/political/neighborhood relationships in ways that are creating enormous webs, so that citizen mobilization can happen at a speed and scale that has never been seen before. We have moved from virtuous, habitual volunteerism to “high-impact public work.” We want our stories, relationships, talents, judgements, and ideas to count for something. We want small and large choices. We feel that institutions and officials should treat us like adults, rather than children. (Public Participation for 21st Century Democracy)

In other words, when we choose to surface from the subconscious and focus our time and attention on some public issue or question, we want (and increasingly expect) to matter.

This essay is adapted from Rewiring Democracy, a publication of Public Agenda.

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