Visions of Government in 2040: The Future of Civic Engagement
In the IBM Center’s new book, Government For The Future: Reflection and Vision for Tomorrow’ Leaders, Part Two of the book looks twenty years ahead – to 2040 -- offering perspectives on the future. This contribution is the next in a multi-part series, The Future of Civic Engagement, authored by Hollie Russon Gilman.
The 2018 mid-term voter turnout was the highest in 50 years. While vital, voting can’t sustain civic engagement in the long term. So, how do we channel near-term activism into long-term civic engagement? In her essay, Gilman paints a picture of how new institutional structures, enabled by new technologies, could lead to a new “civic layer” in society that results in “a more responsive, participatory, collaborative, and adaptive future for civic engagement in governance decision making.”
Creating a New “Civic Layer.” The longer-term future presents an opportunity to set up institutionalized structures for engagement across local, state, and federal levels of government—creating a “civic layer.” Its precise form will evolve, but the basic concept is to establish a centralized interface within a com- munity to engage residents in governance decision making that interweaves digital and in-person engagement. People will earn “civic points” for engagement across a variety of activities—including every time they sign a petition, report a pot hole, or volunteer in their local community.
While creating a civic layer will require new institutional approaches, emerging technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), and distributed ledger (e.g., blockchain) will also play a critical enabling role. These technologies will allow new institutional models to expand the concept of citizen coproduction of services in building a more responsive, connected, and engaged citizenry.
The following examples show different collaborative governance and technology components that will comprise the civic layer. Each could be expanded and become interwoven into the fabric of civic life.
Use Collaborative Policymaking Models to Build a Civic Layer. While we currently think of elections as a primary mode of citizen engagement with government, in the medium- to long-range future we could see collaborative policy models that become the de facto way people engage to supplement elections. Several of these engagement models are on the local level. However, with the formation of a civic layer these forms of engagement could become integrated into a federated structure enabling more scale, scope, and impact. Following are two promising models.
- Participatory Budgeting can be broadly defined as the participation of citizens in the decision-making process of how to allocate their community’s budget among different priorities and in the monitoring of public spending. The process first came to the United States in 2009 through the work of the nonprofit Participatory Budgeting Project. Unlike traditional budget consultations held by some governments—which often amount to “selective listening” exercises—with participatory budgeting, citizens have an actual say in how a portion of a government’s investment budget is spent, with more money often allocated to poorer communities. Experts estimate that up to 2,500 local governments around the world have implemented participatory budgeting,
- Citizens’Jury is another promising collaborative policymaking engagement model, pioneered in the 1980s and currently advocated by the nonprofit Jefferson Center in Minnesota. Three counties in rural Minnesota use this method as a foundation for Rural Climate Dialogues—regular gatherings where local residents hear from rural experts, work directly with their neighbors to design actionable community and policy recommendations, and share their feedback with public officials at a statewide meeting of rural Minnesota citizens, state agency representatives, and nonprofit organizations.
Use Technology to Support a Civic Layer. In addition to institutional collaborative governance and policymaking models for engagement, the application of digital technologies to decision making creates the potential for a dramatically more connected, distributed, and empowered civic life in the future. The following are some promising technologies to incorporate into a civic layer:
- Distributed ledger (Blockchain) technology to connect citizens with government services.Austin, Texas is already experimenting with the use of blockchain technology to provide a digital ID for homeless residents, and to use this ID for accessing city services. Distributed ledger technology could be used for a variety of other public service activities, including public comment, public voting, and civic record keeping.
- Smart phone data to inform public policy. Governments will increasingly engage citizens through their smart phones. This will include informing decisions through the data acquired from smart phones (with explicit user consent), conducting real-time user feedback, leveraging information through sensors, and communicating to citizens via their phones.
- Digital one-stop interfaces for engaging. Governments around the globe will build one-stop interfaces for engaging with government across all levels (national, state, and local). Estonia has been a leader in creating streamlined digital engagement with government. Think of the way e-commerce companies have centralized services for customers. This will include the ability to report non-emergency 311 issues, participate in collaborative policy making, access open data, co-create policy, and give real-time feedback.
- Virtual reality for civic engagement. By 2030 there will be more opportunities for civic engagement using virtual and augmented reality (VR/AR). VR is already contributing to decision making. For example, the Moreton Bay Regional Council in Queensland, Australia, offered several VR experiences for a major development scheme. Through VR, community members and various stakeholders could experience the proposals up close before giving feedback via an online submission form.
- Internet of Things (IoT) to inform location of public assets. Sensors and networks of physical devices which comprise the Internet of Things (IoT) could inform public assets distribution. For example, sensors placed throughout communities can be used to report real-time information on a variety of issues, from solar trash cans to water, energy, and transportability.
- Artificial intelligence (AI) to directly communicate between public administrators and residents. AI can help reduce the burden of paperwork and other redundant tasks for public administrators, and free up capacity to more deeply engage with community members. However, AI faces the challenge of ensuring authenticity and fairness with engagement, which will need to be addressed in advance of widespread use.
By 2040, these technologies will become integrated into the core fabric of government at all levels to ensure more seamless interactions between our online and offline selves. This will result in a more responsive government that pulsates with vibrancy and information from its citizens.