Tapping Technology to Enhance Civic Engagement

Tapping Technology to Enhance Civic Engagement

Deb Socia, Executive Director of Next Century Cities
Deb Socia
City leaders often struggle to engage citizens in the civic arena. How can we encourage busy people with limited time to become active participants in the public process? How can municipalities hear from a wider range of constituents, particularly those who have not traditionally engaged? And how can technology be used to enhance and improve civic engagement?

Next Century Cities launched the Charles Benton Next Generation Engagement Award program to investigate this dilemma, and to identify best practices for tech-powered civic engagement. We began our research by investigating civic engagement projects that were already underway. We found that while there were some interesting city-led projects, there was very little guidance about how to build a successful one.

Using broadband to enlist citizens to improve their communities

Once our research was complete, we created the process for municipalities to apply for one of three $30,000 awards to support the creation of a tech-enhanced project. We kept the application process open-ended in order to encourage creativity. And we were rewarded with a wide range of applications that were indeed unique and varied. We used a rigorous selection process, judged by national experts, including Susan Crawford, law professor at Harvard; Blair Levin, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution; Tom Glaisyer, Program Director at Democracy Fund; and Adrianne Furniss, Executive Director of the Benton Foundation.

The judges selected three very different projects – one from Austin, another from Raleigh, and a third from Louisville:

Austin’s Smart Work, Learn, Play program employs public housing residents as Mobility Ambassadors to reach low-literacy, low-income households on the wrong side of the Digital Divide. The program teaches residents how to make smarter transportation decisions through the use of digital tools, and helps gather the data that Austin’s Housing Authority needs to make improvements. The Mobility Ambassadors engage with Austin Department of Transportation staff to ensure decisions and changes are made that will improve transportation options for all city residents.

InVision Raleigh is an online, 3D visualization tool that allows urban planners and community members to understand and analyze proposed developments in the city. Residents use the tool to understand the impact of proposed buildings on their surrounding areas in Raleigh. The city hopes that the tool will lower the bar for citizen participation by making information more widely accessible.

Louisville’s Gigabit Experience Center, located in the city’s lowest income neighborhood, is an open-access community technology center with a publicly-available, gigabit internet connection. The center, which opened in May 2017, has already hosted hackathons, coding camps, and business skills courses. The center serves as a hub for learners, entrepreneurs, and creators throughout the city and is an integral part of the city’s overall digital inclusion plan.

Once underway, we followed each project closely. We wanted to glean every detail of what they were learning – successes and missteps – so we could codify those lessons in such a way that others could learn from their work.

We discovered that there were common themes, and that those themes fell into five distinct lessons for civic-engagement planners:

  1. Build With, Not For – It sounds simple, but don’t assume you know what your community needs, you must ask. Early engagement of the community ensures you are addressing a real need and will increase participation and promote success.
  2. Partnerships Breed Results – Cross sector collaboration brings expertise and promotes buy in.
  3. Civic Technology is a Spectrum – Projects with different goals have different levels of participant engagement. 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.
  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.

In collaboration with the three cities, we codified the themes in 5 Lessons for Tech-Powered Civic Engagement. This playbook dives deeper into the three projects and gives clear examples of each of the five lessons in action. In addition, there is a simple checklist at the back of the book that helps to outline the actions steps municipalities can take to improve the success of their projects.

We hope that the playbook, as well as the stories shared from each of the winning cities, will help inspire municipal leaders to expand and enhance civic engagement within their communities.


Deb Socia is the Executive Director of Next Century Cities, a nonprofit that strives to support community leaders across the country as they seek to ensure that all have access to fast, affordable, and reliable Internet. More than 180 cities strong, Next Century Cities is committed to celebrating city successes, demonstrating the value of truly high speed broadband, and elevating the importance of next generation broadband as essential infrastructure.