The web and mobile phones have transformed how people engage in local civic life. Information is more accessible and opportunities to participate are more apparent. But as traditional indicators of civic engagement are in decline, including voting and meeting attendance, what I call the civic web is in need of design. The civic web is the aggregate of tools and processes through which civic content gets created and shared online. It is a normative construct that establishes learning as central to online civic participation. Digital connectivity does not equate to good civic learning. This article suggests ways in which governments and civic organizations can design engagement processes that take advantage of the affordances of the civic web in order to cultivate meaningful digital citizenship.
The Civic Web
What does it look like to be civically engaged? Before the Internet, it often looked like reading the newspaper, watching local news on television, attending town hall meetings and rallies, and perhaps writing letters to representatives. But with the Internet, the terms and methods of being an informed and engaged citizen have changed.
1 While each of the previous forms and methods continue to exist, digital tools and their corresponding social practices have altered their function and meaning. Reading the paper can happen on phones through a number of different websites or social networking services (SNS), attending a town hall meeting can happen in the comfort of one’s home, and joining a rally might be as simple as “liking” something on Facebook. Civic participation has shifted from being solely defined by discrete and recognizable actions, such as attending meetings and writing letters, to the more personal and networked actions of sharing, liking, playing, and replying.
Tweeting about a broken streetlight, for example, is a form of civic participation, and it has a relatively low barrier to entry (see fig. 1). “Good citizenship” is no longer limited to hard work defined by discrete civic actions; it can be woven into everyday life, composed of small actions within larger social systems. While there is a marked decrease in traditional indicators of civic engagement in the United States, including voting in local elections, meeting attendance, and civic group membership,2 participation in civic life is not decreasing. It is changing its appearance. It is dispersed across a larger spectrum of small interactions, including those that take place within social and mobile media.
The Internet has created a rich civic context with remarkable potential. However, government policies and institutional practices that encourage and record civic participation have not kept pace with it. Why should local civic participation be so difficult when one can share media in an instant and converse with people half way around the world? It makes logical sense for civic institutions, including municipal governments and planning agencies, to shift their priorities to accommodate these new practices. While there are legitimate concerns that this changing information landscape excludes those without access, the solution is not to ignore or deny the affordances of online participation. To address the digital divide problem, many institutions have resisted change, adopting very traditional approaches to citizen engagement that rely exclusively on forums such as town hall meetings. But this approach effectively excludes those who seek to engage in different ways or for whom traditional modes of engagement are foreign, ultimately creating a different sort of access problem.
While some organizations have assumed an “abstinence only” policy for digital communication, others have embraced the new technologies. Many municipal governments employ online surveys and polling tools to gauge the opinions of their constituents. And it is difficult to find a local government office without a Facebook page. But this enthusiasm for using the web does not always equate to smart uses of the web.3 Too often the web is treated as a simple outreach tool or mechanism for efficient data dissemination or collection. It is used as a mere digital extension of offline processes as opposed to an assembly of new ones that accommodate the social interactions, sharing and learning that takes place online.
Governments and civic organizations need to understand the web as more than just a portal to information and efficient transactions. I introduce the civic web as a descriptive and critical concept to further this understanding and to provide tactical approaches to engaging citizens. The civic web is the aggregate of tools and processes through which civic content gets created and shared online. And it is a normative construct that establishes online, informal learning as a standard of civic engagement in contemporary society. Learning requires more than just access to information; it requires that the learner have some capacity to reflect on the information they consume. As John Dewey argues, learning happens when successive experiences are integrated with one another,4 when one is asked to apply information or take action based on information. Simply consuming information—watching the news or reading a blog—does not necessarily establish a context for learning. While these interactions happen on the web, the civic web is a framework of online social interactions where everyday civic actions are amplified, scrutinized, and shared.
Municipal governments and local organizations need to be a responsive to a civic web that is taking shape outside of formalized institutions. They need to figure out meaningful ways of bringing everyday civic actions into official processes.
This means thinking beyond participation, or the efficient citizen transactions that take place on most municipal websites, like paying taxes and parking tickets, and moving towards engagement, or creating or harnessing platforms for collaboration, learning, and social connection. Examples of the civic web include a tool that allows citizens to visualize the details of a proposed development project and converse with neighbors5 (see fig. 2); the process of aggregating local data and sharing visualizations with the community6 (see fig. 3); or a role playing game that allows people to play different characters in a local planning context7 (see fig. 4).
In what follows, I present six principles to guide governments and civic organizations to meaningful design for the civic web.
1) Tools Solve Problems
Too often, civic web tools are built with the assumption that simply because they exist people will use them. For example, a chat forum is created on a city website, but people are not given any reason to use it. There is nothing inherently usable about a tool—while a hammer might be good at pressing nails into wood, it is not ideal for opening cans. Users need to be both aware of a tool and aware of the problem that it seeks to solve. If I don’t know there are protruding nails, then the hammer is not useful to me. Or, if I am not aware of the need to contribute ideas to city officials, then I don’t need a forum.
It is one thing for a problem to exist, it is quite another for a group of people to be able to articulate the existence of that problem.8 It is important that, along with the introduction of a tool, there is a clear articulation of the problem to which that tool will be applied. Otherwise, there might be a lot of people trying to open cans with hammers.
2) Audience Matters
The civic web is composed of performers and audiences. Citizens consume and share civic information so that they can persuade or gain influence (see fig. 5).
Engaged citizens act in a communicative context whether it is reading the newspaper to become informed or attending a town hall meeting to be heard. To be engaged implies more than just an informational transaction; it implies a dialogue between the citizen and the source of information.9 This is true for a town hall meeting, just as it is true for a web forum. The design of the civic web requires transparency in audience settings, enabling free movement between official transactions and personal social networks. Because civic life cannot be cleanly separated from social life, the civic web should always be designed in such a way that provides the user the flexibility to shape and expand audiences.
3) Networks are Composed of People
The challenge for designing within the civic web is making clear the connection between a community and the people that compose it. How can a user of a local social software platform, for instance, feel as though participation matters in the larger context of defining a place? Digital tools are quite good at aggregating user data into something that can reflect the general make-up of a located community. But good civic engagement requires that in addition to making a user aware of aggregated data, citizens are perpetually aware of the individual actions that comprise aggregation. For example, knowing the outcome of an election is different than having the ability to interact directly with the individuals that voted. In the civic web, sharing between identifiable individuals makes the network meaningful.
4) Scale Matters
Digital networks can reach large numbers of people in a distributed fashion. But in some cases, the quality of engagement is contingent on reducing the numbers of those engaged. Participating in a neighborhood meeting is more meaningful if people from other neighborhoods are excluded. Designers need to consider how scale will factor into user perceptions of their participation. If the scale is too large, users may not feel connected to others involved in the process; if the scale is too small, they may feel that their participation is not meaningful enough for those listening. Quantity is not in itself a positive attribute of a process; it is a variable that should be considered in design.
5) The Civic Web is On- and Offline
There is considerable evidence that civic learning happens in the intersection of online and offline modes.10 Intermittent physical presence can have a noticeable effect on giving a community of users a sense of each other and the directionality of online communication (see fig. 6).
It can provide a useful visualization of an online network and a human face to many-to-many correspondence. This can work in two ways: as an introductory framework for online communication or as an anticipatory framework for online communication. If people meet face-to-face before they engage online, they can better understand to whom they are communicating; if people know they are going to meet face-to-face after they communicate online, it can serve as motivation for productive and meaningful exchanges.
Face-to-face meetings can be quite effective for establishing context for civic learning. They can be used as periodic reminders of the physical context of online communication or they can occur only once. Good design not only should arrange for these meetings to happen but also should carefully integrate physical, synchronous interactions into the flow of online interactions.
6) Design for Distraction
The civic web does not require undivided attention. When people are engaged in a community process, they are doing multiple things simultaneously. They have families, social lives, jobs, and other interests. To engage them is not to have them sacrifice their commitment to any or all of these things. It is to have them direct a limited amount of attention to a particular matter. Designing for civic learning is designing for distraction. Learning requires reflection and sustained attention, but it does not require absolute attention. Attention is spread out across time, not just across space. The ideal user is a multi-tasker, switching from one thing to another with ease. In this regard, civic engagement implies the ability to take from multiple contexts and apply towards a specific matter when nudged by a well-designed system to do so. Civic engagement simply means being aware of civic processes and their corresponding communities and contributing some level of care to decisions made about them.
There is a great deal of interest across sectors to design for the civic web, from urban planning to education to public health. Those making the plans are increasingly interested in establishing ways to engage with those who are being planned for. The reasons for this are quite diverse. In some cases, the interest is motivated primarily by the desire to be “current.” When an organization wants to use new technologies because everyone else is doing it, it almost guarantees a process that is not thoughtful in execution. However, when an organization is interested in engaging the public because it will make a better process and contribute to more sustainable communities, then there is great potential for success. The principles presented in this short article are meant to be a starting point for designing for the civic web. They are configured around community-oriented problem solving, not token “new media-ism.” The digital tools we have available to us can be used to demonstrate that we have digital tools; but that is a short-lived thrill. Digital tools are a means to an end. If they are treated as an end in themselves, they threaten to subvert the community engagement process, sublimating the potential human connections and learning to the flashy functionality of a digital billboard.
Barber, Benjamin. Strong Democracy. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.
Carpini, Michael X. Delli, Fay Lomax Cook, and Lawrence R. Jacobs. “Public Deliberation, Discursive Participation, and Citizen Engagement: A Review of the Empirical Literature.” Annual Review of Political Science 7: 315–344.
Dewey, John. Experience and Education. New York: Collier Books, 1938.
Evans-Cowley, Jennifer S. “Planning in the Age of Facebook: the Role of Social Networking in Planning Processes.” GeoJournal 75, no. 5: 407–420.
Gastil, John. “Is Face-to-Face Citizen Deliberation a Luxury or a Necessity?.” Political Communication 17, no. 4 (2000): 357–361.
——. Political Communication and Deliberation. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2008.
Gil de Zúñiga, Homero. “Social Media Use for News and Individuals’ Social Capital, Civic Engagement and Political Participation.” Journal of Computer–Mediated Communication 17, no. 3 (2012): 319–336.
Gordon, Eric, and Edith Manosevitch. “Augmented Deliberation: Merging Physical and Virtual Interaction to Engage Communities in Urban Planning.” New Media and Society 13, no. 1 (February 2011): 75–95.
Gordon, Eric, and Steven Schirra. “Playing with Empathy: Digital Role Playing Games in Public Meetings.” Presentation, Fifth International Conference on Communities and Technologies, C&T 2011, Brisbane, QLD, Australia, June 29 – July 2, 2011.
Hirsch, T., and J. Liu. “Speakeasy: Overcoming Barriers and Promoting Community Development in an Immigrant Neighborhood.” Proceedings of the 5th Conference on Designing Interactive Systems: Processes, Practices, Methods, and Techniques (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Designing Interactive Systems, 2004): 345–348.
Hirzalla, Fadi, and Liesbet Van Zoonen. “Beyond the Online/Offline Divide.” Social Science Computer Review 29, no. 4 (November 12, 2011): 481–498.
Leighninger, Matt. “Citizenship and Governance in a Wild, Wired World: How Should Citizens and Public Managers Use Online Tools to Improve Democracy?.” National Civic Review (2011).
Lukensmeyer, Carolyn, Joe Goldman, and David Stern. Assessing Public Participation in an Open Government Era, IBM Business of Government, 2011.
Putnam, Robert. “Bowling Alone.” Journal of Democracy 6, no. 1 (July 19, 1995). Accessed November 12, 2011. http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/DETOC/assoc/bowling.html.
Ratti, Carlo, and Anthony Townsend. “Harnessing Residents’ Electronic Devices Will Yield Truly Smart Cities.” Scientific American (August 16, 2011). Accessed November 12, 2011. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=the-social-nexus.
- Matt Leighninger, “Citizenship and Governance in a Wild, Wired World: How Should Citizens and Public Managers Use Online Tools to Improve Democracy?,” National Civic Review (2011): 20-29; Carolyn Lukensmeyer, Joe Goldman, and David Stern, Assessing Public Participation in an Open Government Era (IBM Business of Government, 2011).↵
- Robert Putnam, “Bowling Alone,” Journal of Democracy 6, no. 1 (July 19, 1995), accessed November 15, 2012, http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/DETOC/assoc/bowling.html.↵
- Jennifer S. Evans-Cowley, “Planning in the Age of Facebook: the Role of Social Networking in Planning Processes,” GeoJournal 75, no. 5 (2010): 407–420.↵
- John Dewey, Experience and Education, (New York: Collier Books, 1938).↵
- E Gordon and E Manosevitch, “Augmented Deliberation: Merging Physical and Virtual Interaction to Engage Communities in Urban Planning,” New Media and Society 13, no. 1 (February 2011): 75–95.↵
- Carlo Ratti and Anthony Townsend, “Harnessing Residents’ Electronic Devices Will Yield Truly Smart Cities,” Scientific American (August 16, 2011), accessed November 15, 2012, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=the-social-nexus.↵
- Eric Gordon and Steven Schirra, “Playing with Empathy: Digital Role Playing Games in Public Meetings,” (presentation, Fifth International Conference on Communities and Technologies, C&T 2011, Brisbane, QLD, Australia, June 29 – July 2, 2011); T. Hirsch and J. Liu, “Speakeasy: Overcoming Barriers and Promoting Community Development in an Immigrant Neighborhood,” Proceedings of the 5th Conference on Designing Interactive Systems: Processes, Practices, Methods, and Techniques (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Designing Interactive Systems, 2004): 345–348.↵
- Benjamin Barber, Strong Democracy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984); Michael X. Delli Carpini, Fay Lomax Cook, and Lawrence R. Jacobs, “Public Deliberation, Discursive Participation, and Citizen Engagement: A Review of the Empirical Literature,” Annual Review of Political. Science 7 (2004): 315–344.↵
- John Gastil, Political Communication and Deliberation (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2008).↵
- Homero Gil de Zúñiga, “Social Media Use for News and Individuals’ Social Capital, Civic Engagement and Political Participation,” Journal of Computer–Mediated Communication 17, no. 3 (2012): 319–336; Fadi Hirzalla and Liesbet Van Zoonen, “Beyond the Online/Offline Divide,” Social Science Computer Review 29, no. 4 (November 12, 2011): 481–498; Gordon and Manosevitch, “Augmented Deliberation: Merging Physical and Virtual Interaction to Engage Communities in Urban Planning,” 75-95; John Gastil, “Is Face-to-Face Citizen Deliberation a Luxury or a Necessity?,” Political Communication 17, no. 4 (2000): 357–361.↵