Americans Suck at Civic Engagement

In the US, it seems that most people’s idea of civic engagement is posting political memes on Facebook expressing how incompetent the opposing party is. The scenario goes like this:

  • Trump says something outrageous
  • People post memes on social media
  • Get in debate in comments sections
  • No one’s opinions change
  • Wait for next outrageous incident

But when it comes to taking action and being engaged in the political process, Americans suck. The US ranks near the bottom for voter turnout compared to other developed nations. In 2016’s presidential election, voter turnout was a measly 55.7%.

*National law makes voting compulsory. In addition, one Swiss canton has compulsory voting.
Source: Pew Research Center calculations based on data from International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, European Election Database, United States Election Project, Office of the Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives and various national election authorities. Link to Source

There are seemingly obvious solutions to our embarrassingly low federal election turnouts like automatic or mandatory voter enrollment, making election day a federal holiday (or at least move it to a weekend), and adding more convenient voting options (preferably online voting, but that’s a whole other issue in itself). These are not new or radical ideas and they are starting to get traction through politicians like Bernie Sanders.

But civic engagement isn’t just about voting. It’s about involving our citizens in the entire decision-making process. And the responsibility isn’t all on the citizens. Governments could do a lot better at making civic engagement more convenient for the public.

Civic engagement builds trust between government and citizens. It gives power back to the community and creates a shared sense of responsibility in decision making. After all, the government’s whole purpose is to serve the people. It’s strange that civic engagement isn’t a priority in a country that supposedly values democracy.

And If you thought voter turnout for federal elections was bad, it gets worse when scaling down. So bad, Los Angeles resorted to bribing citizens to show up for local elections in 2017 by offering cash prizes after voter turnout fell to 20%. (source) If nearly half of the country doesn’t even turn out for the presidential election, how can we expect them to care about local elections?

Again though, this isn’t just about voter turnout. Everyone has an issue that they care about that affects their everyday life. Whether it’s the pot holes, dirty sidewalks, lack of bike lanes, too many homeless people… whatever. People may complain about these issues to their friends or family but rarely do they know where to go and may feel helpless at finding a solution. But what if you knew that your voice mattered? What if you could be involved in the decisions that were made in your public community? What if you could help steer the conversation to issues that mattered most to you?

In the words of Dr. Seuss, “Nothings going to get better, its not, unless a person like you cares an awful whole lot”.

The problem is the US makes it difficult. It’s hard enough to juggle work, school, kids, and now you’re expected to be involved in local government? Besides, community meetings aren’t well advertised, and the location and time is probably inconvenient. I would guess that most people don’t know what decisions are being made at their local level or how their lives may be affected.

It doesn’t have to be that way. What if instead of clicking on Facebook or Instagram and mindlessly scrolling past Baby Trump memes, you were scrolling through an app that allowed you to engage directly with local public administrators and policymakers? An app where you could easily see what’s going on in the community and weigh in with your opinion or bring up issues that are important to you?

I spent a lot of time creating the perfect civic engagement app in mind and what that interaction would look like. I thought I had a new, radical idea, but a quick Google search told me that this was not a new idea. And this type of interaction is already popular in countries like Australia, New Zealand, and the UK. In fact, one Australian company called Bang The Table is bringing their platform to the US. The capability and expertise is out there, but if the people aren’t asking for it, then it won’t be on the agenda.

Civic engagement isn’t a sexy topic. But it should be. Let’s start talking about it.

Let’s face it. As much as Americans want to believe we’re the best country on Earth, we definitely fail in some areas. There is a lot we can learn from other countries about civic engagement and the journey has barely begun.

Management Consultant in the Bay Area | BBA | MPA — University of San Francisco |

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