How might we use tech to build a culture of civic engagement?

This is the question we posed to the group of over 50 civic leaders who gathered together in Chicago three weeks ago.

I’m sitting in a room full of organizers, technologists, civic leaders, public servants, and researchers at the University of Chicago Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. We’ve just spent two days telling stories, exploring shared challenges, and brainstorming new approaches for how we might use tech to inspire a culture of civic engagement in America.

Team “Gov” — which includes members from Microsoft, the Center for Technology and Civic Life, the NYC Public Engagement Unit, and Urban.us — just wowed the room with an elegant idea to improve access to government services and increase citizen awareness of government’s impact on daily life.

Team “Vote” — which includes folks from CrowdPac, Democracy Works, Vote.org, the Knight Foundation, MIT Media Lab, and Rock the Vote — has inspired the room with an idea to reduce youth voter drop-off between 2016 and 2018. They want to build a platform that will make voting history accessible within personal networks, and incentivize young people to nudge their friends to vote.

Team “Take Action” — with members from Stronger U.S., Timshel, and Hustle — has imagined a new digital civic commons in which we break out of our online echo chambers and have real conversations with folks with whom we might otherwise never interact.

Team “Lead and Run” — which includes members from RISE, ShareProgress, New Nation Rising, and Deck Apps — has presented an approach to supporting a more diverse pool of candidates to run for office. They’re planning to build out a “candidate journey” map that will help to guide potential candidates from exploration to campaign launch to Election Day.

Now, I’ve started at the end, which is when things always look the simplest and easiest to digest…

Let’s take a look at where we began.

February 27, 2018

Imagining solutions is one thing, but anchoring ourselves in reality came first. The starkness of that reality makes our progress all the more remarkable.

Here’s a brief snapshot of the state of civic engagement in America…

*For more on this topic and how it calls us to action, check out our launch post.

There’s a lot going on here, and there’s no silver bullet. How can we expect people to take civic action when the political environment is such a turn-off? It can be difficult to know where to begin. But in an increasingly digital age, the way we use technology to communicate, build relationships, and inspire action is a natural place to start.

This is why CHORUS brought together leaders from across disciplines and geographies to explore the role that tech might play in renewing our civic culture. And as you can see, they came up with some pretty incredible stuff.

So how did this all go down?

After spending some time building understanding of our current civic and political ecosystem, we split into teams to share best practices, exchange lessons learned, and build new approaches that addressed a discrete focal point on the citizen journey — from registering to vote to casting a ballot to engaging in government programs to running for office.

Over the course of our two days together, each team embarked on a series of conversations that looked something like this:

  1. Ground in context
  2. Explore shared successes and challenges
  3. Empathize with the end-user (citizens!)
  4. Define and scope the problem
  5. Develop a “How might we…” question
  6. Brainstorm new approaches
  7. Narrow to one idea
  8. Sketch out the vision

In the next several weeks, CHORUS will publish a series of blog posts from the civic innovators who tackled these and other questions raised at our first convening. Stay tuned for more on what we learned, what we imagined, and how you can be a part of bringing these ideas to life.

Thanks to Lisa Conn.