May 15, 2015

America may BE a participatory democracy, but that doesn't mean we want to participate.

In 2014, only 36% of those who could vote, actually did.

So, how do you get people to care? To vote, protest, attend town meetings, or generally get involved in their community?

First, says researcher Kate Krontiris, you have to identify "the interested bystanders," who she estimates may constitute about half the US population. They're the folks who care about their community, who see the potential to be involved - and yet hang back. 

But why?

"We found that three things were really the top drivers," notes Krontiris, a fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center who, along with John Webb, Chris Chapman, and Charlotte Krontiris, recently finished a study on civic engagement for Google. First, people want to feel that they can contribute something to the discussion; second, they're seeking emotional engagement; and third, they need to have something (a house, a child, a lifestyle) that they're trying to protect or safeguard.

"Interested bystanders are not just going to do just altruistically do something out of the goodness of their heart. They live busy lives. There really needs to be some sort of self interest that aligns with the opportunity to do something in the public interest for them to get involved."

But there are ways to engage those at the fringes. 

Technology is key, because young people - often the most apathetic - feel deeply connected to their devices. Krontiris points to Democracy Works, which uses apps to register voters, help keep them informed, and guide them to the polls on election day. 

At the grassroots, there are less tech-heavy efforts, like participatory budgeting. The city of Cambridge, Massachusetts - where Krontiris lives - set aside $500,000 this year and let residents over the age of 11 vote on how they wanted to spend the money. (What won? New trees, a public bathroom, bilingual books, bike repair stations, free WiFi, and laptops for the community center).

"I have to tell you," Krontiris says, "participatory budgeting, compared to city council meeting, is like night and day with respect to public engagement... You get to make decisions. You get to have a vision for the future. The process is easy to understand."

Krontiris says that on-the-ground efforts like this, coupled with tech-oriented ways of reaching out, are essential to support and encourage civic engagement. So that we feel that our voice actually gets heard.

government, Culture, civics, politics, Kate Krontiris

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