Five Lessons for Tech-Powered Civic Engagement: The Charles Benton Next Generation Engagement Award Playbook

What does gigabit civic engagement look like?

Municipalities across the country are increasingly using technology to ensure government is accessible and responsive to citizens, while simultaneously creating forward-looking programs to increase internet access so more residents can experience the benefits of connectivity. These initiatives can be used to create civic technology programs, which draw on the power of technology to promote digital inclusion and civic engagement.

The best civic-technology initiatives facilitate unprecedented levels of public involvement in community governance, narrow the digital divide, and improve communities. As a result, governance is more democratic and more individuals can enjoy the educational and economic benefits of internet access. Empowering citizens to make informed decisions and offer direction about who governs them – and how – is essential to improving our democracy.

In early 2016, Next Century Cities launched the Charles Benton Next Generation Engagement Awards to reward innovative thinking in civic technology. Following a competition that generated applications from across the country, three cities – Austin, Texas; Louisville, Kentucky; and Raleigh, North Carolina – were awarded seed grants in late 2016 to help launch innovative programs that would use high-speed broadband to improve civic engagement and democratic participation:

  • Austin’s Smart Work, Learn, Play began as a way to address the transportation needs of people living in low-income housing, and through gathering data, has transformed the manner in which the city calibrates its public transit routes to better meet the needs of its residents.
  • Louisville’s Gigabit Experience Center brings high-speed Internet to West Louisville for the first time and through classes, interactive demonstrations and visiting experts, residents are given the opportunity to learn more about 21st century digital skills and opportunities.
  • InVision Raleigh is a web application that allows the public to see how proposed development would alter the city and invites greater engagement from the public in zoning decisions.

Over the course of the past year, Next Century Cities has researched existing projects, interviewed experts in the field, and worked with the three inaugural Charles Benton Next Generation Engagement Award winners to generate key takeaways and lessons learned that can be utilized by any city to successfully create and implement similar initiatives.

Through local experience and research, Next Century Cities has identified five key lessons that community leaders can employ as they leverage increased access and next-generation technology to expand civic engagement initiatives. Each lesson is explored in depth in the sections of this playbook:

  1. Build With, Not For – Each community knows its own needs best, so during the project’s initial phase, it is key to engage stakeholders across the impacted area – especially including the ones who are least often heard from. Early community engagement will mean project goals and scope are more likely to address real needs, increase participation, and promote success.
  2. Partnerships Breed Results – Effective civic-technology projects break through silos by bringing together multiple government agencies and outside stakeholders in the private and non-profit sectors. Cross-sector collaboration brings expertise to the table and promotes buy-in.
  3. Civic Technology is a Spectrum – Projects with different goals have different levels of participant engagement. Participatory-budgeting programs, for example, move decision-making power from the city government to the public. Other initiatives inform or engage the public without devolving decision-making to the people. A city’s approach should match its goal; there is no one-size-fits-all approach to engaging citizens.
  4. The Multiplier Effect – Effective civic-technology programs yield benefits far beyond their immediate goals. For example, successful digital inclusion programs yield a savvier public that can access online educational and job search resources.
  5. Changing Communities for the Better – Well-executed, digital civic-engagement projects ensure citizens’ voices are heard in new and interactive ways. This can lead to increased feelings of empowerment, and greater levels of ownership and attachment to the community. City leaders benefit from spending time listening to community members’ needs and concerns and ensuring there are opportunities for them to engage in meaningful ways throughout the project.

Download your copy of the The Charles Benton Next Generation Engagement Award Playbook and the Leveraging Technology for Civic Engagement Checklist