Civic Tech

Beyond Tokenism in Civic Participation

Screen grab from the #VizLous beta site.

Back in February, we told you how Living Cities was headed to Louisville, Ky. to work with the city and local non-profits on engaging younger, lower-income residents in the planning process. Last week, the result of that collaboration launched in beta.

Enter #VizLou, an online platform that aims to collect ideas from locals about the direction they hope to see Louisville take. Forget about waiting to speak at public meetings and seeing participation go down the rabbit hole of “consideration”: With a name that riffs on Vision Louisville, the city’s 25-year plan, #VizLou will help connect citizens to local leaders by allowing them to use social media to contribute to the wider planning effort.

But while the platform could very well improve access by widening the pool of citizens who participate in local planning, its focus on tweets raises important questions. For one, how seriously will local political leaders take it? They will have to view online input as more than token participation for #VizLou to serve as a successful tool for empowering low-income residents.

The cost of civic participation for city residents is often high. It can require taking a day off work, speaking under the terms and constraints of government officials, and seeing one’s questions and concerns get lost the black hole of “consideration” and “input.” Often, participation is cherry-picked to support positions that a given policymaker already wanted to take. No wonder a citizen activist in New Orleans once told me, “If I have to participate one more time, I’m going to scream.”

#VizLou does take some key steps toward addressing issues of access. Having a central hub to discuss projects and ideas, a platform for crowd-sourcing, and a government-sanctioned place for critiques and connections is a promising way to reach the potential participator — one that hasn’t dedicated every spare minute of his or her free time to attending (and often protesting) city meetings.

Of course, its use of social media is also its biggest drawback. Despite the proliferation of smart phones, plenty of individuals in low-income communities either don’t have access to, or aren’t comfortable using, social media. That’s why any big online push needs to be paired with a planning tool links to citizens through local institutions such as book stores, schools and libraries.

#VizLou does a nice job of lowering the cost of participating. But the bigger issue is how to raise the benefits. There is nothing a citizen activist sniffs out quicker than playing the role of rubber-stamp token participator to fill legislature’s quota.

In other words, a technological platform can be wonderful, but the most critical issue is how it gets used. How are 140 characters any different than a neighborhood activist’s two-minute stump speech at a meeting? Will tweets be heeded in different ways? More importantly, will this mean that government listens to citizens in a way that citizens recognize as worth their time?

If yes, #VizLou isn’t just a neat tech toy, it’s a tool for change. If not, it’s just a 21st-century manifestation of the same politics of token participation.

Dr. Stephen Danley is an assistant professor of public policy and administration at Rutgers University-Camden. He is a Marshall Scholar and graduate of the University of Oxford. Find him on Twitter @SteveDanley.

Tags: civic tech, civic engagement, planning, living cities, twitter, social media, louisville