The Challenges of Civic Engagement in the 21st Century

By Darby Patterson
Center for Digital Government

The American public has become increasingly estranged from the culture and process of government at all levels. Evidence of America’s disengagement can be found at the polls – with over half of eligible citizens declining to use their right to vote.

As electronic government develops, there is great concern that people are not left further behind. That instead, they rediscover why government is relevant in their lives and why it is important to participate in civic life.

Experts believe that citizens are not aware of the variety of services delivered by government. They also believe that, once more services are online, the public will be have increased access to information about what departments and agencies do for the people they serve. Today, in the world of electronic government, people talk about “silos,” – meaning that agencies have built walls around themselves and operate in isolation, without a high degree of accountability. Analysts believe that information technology can make those walls transparent.

Although government provides abundant services – such as schools, transportation systems, health care and a wealth services that most people take for granted, citizens still don’t understand where their tax dollars go. And, this disconnect is particularly apparent among young people who can’t understand what government does for them.

Civic education of young people is a particular concern in the establishment of e-government. Sometimes viewed as irrelevant and even “boring,” an understanding of how government works is basic to becoming a fully engaged citizen. Resources on the Internet can make a topic that once seemed distant, more immediate and interesting. Students, with their natural aptitudes for technology, could help design a curriculum to capture their imaginations and interest. The Internet can change the dynamics of learning. The student no longer has to be passive. He or she can participate in learning – taking charge of searching the Web for answers and information.

This new medium seems to fit the style of today’s students. Experts have pointed out that young people tend to deal with the world from the “bottom up” while government operates from the “top down.” The Internet is bottom-up and a logical tool for engaging students in civic education.

However, it is important to recognize that civic engagement can take many forms. Although voting is a measure of participation, it is by no means the only way that people engage in civic life. Citizens from all ages and walks of life participate in their communities through volunteering at food banks and working in the nonprofit arena. What seems to matter is that citizens develop a sense of responsibility toward their community and develop some way to participate. Again, digital technologies can expand the universe of choices for people looking for ways to contribute to society. Governments, with their connections to community resources, can provide links to unlimited opportunities.

It is also important for governments to recognize the many avenues to disseminate information. Beyond the Internet there are handheld devices, digital phones, wireless, kiosks and new, emerging technologies. Electronic and digital tools should be available in multiple locations such as libraries, public and private schools, and through community and faith-based groups. Furthermore, given the public’s positive experience with the ease of the Internet, government services need to be accessible 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Most government officials recognize they have a challenge on their hands. Over the past few decades, the public seems to have grown increasingly cynical about government. One way for people to express their distrust or dislike of government is to withhold their votes. However, they also express themselves on radio talk shows, in Internet chat rooms and on the editorial pages of the nation’s newspapers. Today, the climate of disengagement is palpable. Leaders of the e-government revolution are keen to seize the opportunity to use technology to create a more positive experience for the public.

The hope for the future is that the more transparent and relevant government becomes, the more citizens will participate. The Internet and electronic technologies are powerful tools that hold the potential to reverse the trend toward disengagement. Today’s students could be on the leading edge of this transformation.

Darby Patterson is Senior Analyst for the Center for Digital Democracy. This article was written exclusively for The Futures Channel by the CDG.

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