Sustaining Civic Engagement
By George A. Polisner, May 14, 2017
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Table of Contents
DEMOCRACY AND CIVIC PARTICIPATION 3
BARRIERS TO CIVIC PARTICIPATION 3
Civics Education 3
Voter Suppression 3
Time Scarcity and Diminished Quality of Life 4
Political Corruption and Voter Apathy 4
Big Government: Us versus Them 4
Disenfranchised and powerless citizens –post-Citizens United 4
CIVIC ACTIONS 4
THE SPECTRUM OF ACTIONS 5
Moderate weight 6
TACTICAL ACTION VS. STRATEGIC ACTION 6
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DYNAMIC ACTIONS (SHIFT WITH CHANGE) 7
THE LIFECYCLE OF ACTIONS 7
THE END OF SILOS 7
SUSTAINING ENGAGEMENT 7
Countering Fatigue 8
Gamification and Fun 8
Civic Education 8
Connection to Daily Life 8
ABOUT CIV.WORKS 9
ABOUT THE AUTHOR 9
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Democracy and Civic Participation
For a healthy and vibrant democracy to be sustained, people need to be informed, educated, and
engaged. The concept of the “Townsquare” or Athenian agora, a meeting place where people of all ages
can meet and share political ideas and experiences is largely missing from our civic landscape.
As we discuss below, people are frequently insulated from civic and political engagement by numerous
forces. Barriers to participation must be identified and removed to create safe space for citizens to build
consensus on societal challenges, and to establish outcome-based planning. From such a space people
can help implement changes in legislation, policy, and appropriations for achieving the desired and
positive outcomes. Moving beyond these barriers, we will also develop practical methods to sustain
citizen engagement as a principle of social behavior, and not just as a reaction to government policy that
is at odds with citizen values.
Barriers to Civic Participation
The voter participation lag in state and local elections, particularly in off-cycle and midterm years, is
typically well behind federal elections. In recent years, local turnout has been falling even further behind,
plummeting to a low of approximately 18% in 2009 with an average turnout rate near 26% between 1996-
2011.This is far below the already low 35.9% of eligible voters who cast ballots for federal candidates in
In addition to voter declines in local races, state and local journalism has also suffered. Local newspapers
have shut down, and the number of reporters devoted to state reporting has declined by 35% since 2003.
The result is a local news environment trying to do more with less and in need of new tools to inform and
engage voters at the local level. In this situation, citizens lack the information they need to make critical
decisions about local and state issues.
There are many factors that account for a voter’s decision to participate in a particular election. Voter
confidence in understanding the issues and candidates is one. Feeling empowered to affect change is
another. Voter access to polling places, or better still –mail-in or drop off ballots make the process easier
for voters and increases participation. Low voter participation points to the need for innovative tools that
make it easier for the public to access and act upon a wide range of information. From voter registration
deadlines, party registration rules, to in-depth factual reporting on urgent issues, election data should be
readily available to all citizens. It is important to develop the types of platforms and lived spaces where
journalists, election officials, academics, and others can creatively deliver that information in ways that
inspire and energize ongoing participation.
Civic responsibility must begin in childhood. Here, too, we identify a systemic deficiency. Merely forcing
school children to learn and recite the Pledge of Allegiance is not a substitute for teaching what it means
to be a responsible citizen. Civics instruction, basic economic theory, and political science need to make
their way back into a common curriculum.
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While Oregon has been a leading example of protecting and expanding voter rights, in many States we
find sinister practices, direct and indirect, deterring electoral participation such as voter caging,
manipulation of voter rolls, gerrymandering, and highly restrictive Voter ID laws (Voter ID and Voter Fraud
are now code words for suppressing the vote).
Time Scarcity and Diminished Quality of Life
Since the 1980s when worker wages flattened, people have had to work harder and longer in order to
maintain a reasonable quality of life. This situation has substantially constrained time spent in engaging in
neighborhood or community activities, in researching issues, and in vetting news and candidates for
trustworthiness. Resources necessary for maintaining an informed, educated, and participatory society
have indeed been jeopardized under the pressures of diminished social stability and security.
Political Corruption and Voter Apathy
Voter suppression techniques can take the form of a direct attack on democracy in the form of voter
caging or stringent Voter ID laws that disenfranchise the elderly, people of color, and the impoverished. A
secondary cause of voter apathy stems from a form of self-disenfranchisement from voting and political
engagement. A steady array of negative advertising, polarization of society, dark money pouring into 527
“Swift-Boat” style attacks are not only effective as a political tool –they cause many people to disengage
from the political process through cynicism and apathy. “The major parties are two corrupt sides of the
same coin”. “With 900 million dollars of Koch money pouring in –what good will my vote do?”
Big Government: Us versus Them
“Arguments” describing government as an entity separate from society, as opposed to being a
representation of society, also create a barrier to participatory democracy. “I want a government so small I
can drown it in a bathtub.” “I want government out of healthcare.” “I’d be wealthy by now if not for all of
the red tape and regulation.” The purpose of a government is to help provide fairness and a level playing
field. When members of a society seek to concentrate wealth and power, their tendency is to push
government into the margins of political practice. Greater participation in civic activities and democratic
process will help to eliminate this flawed perspective.
Disenfranchised and powerless citizens –post-Citizens United
Vast amounts of "dark money” dumped into local, state, and national races contribute to voter
disengagement and feelings of powerlessness during election cycles –particularly after the U.S. Supreme
Court decision in “Citizens United vs. the FEC. The ability for the wealthy elite such as David and Charles
Koch, or others, to write checks of close to $1 billion dollars in any election cycle tears at the very fabric of
democracy. The influx of vast sums of money provides a dual benefit for candidates and political parties
which exclusively represent their wealthy suitors. First the direct benefit of producing and distributing
propaganda through major advertising campaigns. And second the demoralizing factor of organizing
people to counter the generally overwhelming influence of money in elections.
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When we perceive the divergence of local, state or federal government from our will, we become more
engaged in the political landscape. Protests against the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, and the civil rights
marches of the 1960s are examples of deeper citizen engagement that has brought about change. Over
the last several years electronic petitions have become a popular, albeit a largely ineffective, form of
Attending townhall meetings, candidate debates, marches, elected official office visits; letters, email,
phone calls, faxes or tweets to elected officials, campaign funding, community organizing, citizen-led
legislation (such as represent.us or the State Innovation Exchange), voting and running for office are all
examples of political engagement.
In the face of social disenfranchisement at the local, state, and federal level, economic action has
become a vital means to taking back political power. Divesting from banks that participate in funding the
Keystone XL or Standing Rock pipelines, Boycotting “Wal*Mart”-style businesses that destroy local
economies and shift wealth from the working poor and middle class to the wealthy. Boycotting gasoline
purchases from companies like Chevron and ExxonMobil (using mass transit and/or buying fuel-efficient
vehicles), and boycotting products and services that promote their reputation based on fake news through
the outlets of hate speech: these are effective means of opposition to the economic and political
inequalities that threaten democracy and human dignity.
Educational Tools and Community Outreach
Instructional media on effective civic engagement as well as on important topics related to wealth
inequality, corporate externalities, fracking, fact checking, and many others are greatly needed. Other
tools must include guidelines and workshops for writing letters to editors of local newspapers and tips for
hosting a “neighborhood film viewing event” or other methods for bringing people together as a
community. Learning together, working together, and sharing one’s experience of the political process, all
of these empower individuals and communities. Creating new spaces for building common understanding
and strategies that can challenge the growing threats to social cohesion will prove to be a key factor in
The Spectrum of Actions
It is useful to identify a spectrum of civic actions with which citizens can engage. In this classification of
action, we identify weight factors such as the complexity of the action, the time/resources required to
complete the action, behavioral style (introvert vs. extrovert), issue affinity (feeling passionate about an
issue), geo-location, and quality of the “call to action” that are important considerations for preparing and
carrying out actions.
Examples of Civic Action classifications are:
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Tweeting, emailing, faxing to elected officials, viewing and sharing educational media, validated
news/information and voting (depending upon voter suppression efforts).
Phone calls to elected officials, changing banks, in some areas boycotts of Wal*Mart (if there is no
competition in a particular area), attending a townhall, attending a march/rally, candidate debates, hosting
a home party, writing and submitting a “Letter to the Editor”, boycotting advertisers, boycotting
corporations and businesses that seek to undermine and diminish democracy (so they can maximize
profit), campaign/PAC donations and voting (depending upon voter suppression efforts).
Heavyweight actions include elected official office visits, community organizing, running for office,
sponsoring citizen-led legislation and voting (depending upon voter suppression efforts).
Tactical Action vs. Strategic Action
Tactical actions take the form of a reaction to unpopular policy or legislation. For example, when the value
of science is challenged, the “March for Science” was organized. Women’s Rights are assailed and a
“Women’s March” was organized. As Congress and the Executive Branch attack the Patient Protection
and Affordable Care Act (ACA), citizens protest at Congressional town hall meetings. From 2001 – 2008,
unpopular policies created societal reaction and protest. The same is occurring at present and will likely
continue until citizens elect officials at the local, state, and federal level that will advocate and represent
all people and not just the interests of the obscenely wealthy.
It is time to recognize that we must move beyond reacting and develop societal mechanisms for strategic
actions as opposed to pure reaction. Determining a set of civic actions in support of implementing a
sweeping policy around issues such as:
Geographically-contextual living wages
Campaign finance reform
Addressing wealth inequality
Justice system reform
Food and Water Security
Energy policy transition to safe, clean and renewable sources.
Policy groups can then build public consensus on a societal outcome, prepare legislation and build a
wave of citizen support using the same civic engagement platform for action creation and distribution.
This will provide for a citizen-led mechanism to drive vital changes in society to counter efforts by
shadowy groups like ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council).
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Dynamic Actions (shift with change)
As society applies the appropriate pressures to drive much needed political and economic reforms, it is
vital to be adaptable to the rapid outcomes that may occur. Organizing phone calls to elected officials, for
example, is an important step. However, when officials minimize staff, minimize the number of phones
(producing busy signals), or fail to record their voice messages and leave space for new ones, we need to
be able to quickly pivot to another form of action. On the other hand, a boycott that brings about the
desired result can then pivot to public appreciation for the corporation that moves in a positive direction,
thanks to our buying and/or investing power. At one point electronic petitions were effective in providing
visibility into societal sentiment with a particular issue or policy which could influence outcomes. Now,
unless they are highly-targeted and narrow to a constituent-elected official relationship their value has
The Lifecycle of Actions
It is important to note that an action itself has a lifecycle that should be tracked. For example if the ACLU
or Moms Rising create a civic action to counter a bad piece of legislation the action is discussed
(conceptualized), formed (originated), distributed and acted upon by recipients. The depth of engagement
and the rating of the action can be fed back to the originator in order to improve future engagement, the
distributor of actions can better understand the behavioral styles of the recipients and fine tune what
actions are routed to which recipients and the overall result can be fed back to all.
The End of Silos
These words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. continue to ring true today: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to
justice everywhere.” The slaughtering of another unarmed person of color by law enforcement, the threat
of another pipeline to the water supply of a community, the poisoning of the air of an impoverished
community by an oil company, the closing of clinics that serve women, the passing of voter suppression
laws/policy (masquerading as “vote integrity” policy) - these “local” and “state” issues impact all
Americans. When we promote profit over people, we are all under attack. When we allow laws that
weaken and erode democracy, we are all under attack. When we allow laws that harm a class of citizens
–we are all under attack. It is incumbent upon each one of us to be stewards of democracy. We cannot
just vote every two or four years and hope for the best. We must engage together and work for the
democracy that is within our grasp.
A majority of elected officials that fail to represent the interests of a large part of the population often
energizes citizen engagement. In the extreme case, for example, when the legislative branch, executive
branch and judicial branch fall under single party control, people on the opposite side of the political aisle
are often catalyzed to action. The greater the political difference between the people and the elected body
the more likely the engagement is to be sustained.
How do we create a sustaining model where all citizens are engaged and remain engaged, regardless of
the political landscape?
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Crucial elements are countering fatigue, recognition, gamification and fun, civic education, connecting
legislative policy to daily life, community and empowerment (influence to drive change).
When government has shifted far away from the will of the populace there is often an array of legislation
and policy across many critical issue areas facing the advocate of democratic values and practices.
Women’s rights, environmental protections, voting rights, racial justice, LGBTQ rights, gun violence
prevention, economic policy, domestic programs and foreign policy are all pressing concerns in today’s
political landscape. Each issue area often has several advocacy and policy groups working to counter the
implementation of bad policy. As a result, we, as engaged citizens, can accumulate dozens of emails per
day with updates, solicitations, and calls to action. It is simply not humanly possible to keep up with it all,
and all too often, it can be discouraging.
The solution is personalized and community management of political resources and priorities. A
sustaining model requires tools that assist activists to identify and act upon their preferred style of
engagement (introvert vs. extrovert, for example), priority issue areas, and geographical location.
Human beings have a need for social recognition of their contributions in order to identify with, and invest
themselves in a movement. Moreover, civic engagement has its share of frustration and disappointment,
desired outcomes can often be years away, and without some form of gratification burn-out is inevitable.
Open recognition for involvement and effort on behalf of producing better societal outcomes for all of us is
necessary to sustain civic engagement. Social platforms harbor great potential as a place for
acknowledging and rewarding participation in the political process.
Gamification and Fun
There are times in which our elected officials are well-aligned with the societal outcomes that citizens
desire. During such times, it’s too easy for individuals to shift into civic engagement “auto-pilot”. Holding
elected officials accountable, helping to inform and educate others about the political process, and
helping respective communities become more deeply engaged must become a longstanding part of our
social fabric. Mechanisms to gamify and award points or prizes and stature for continuing engagement,
regardless of the political landscape, are vital to ensuring that democracy remains strong for future
Sadly, school curriculums no longer incorporate the role of citizens in the political process. It’s important
for children as well as adults to gain insight into the legislative process, elections, issues, how to vote,
and how to participate. The information should be accessible, offered in many languages, and well
integrated into the education system.
Connection to Daily Life
In the scope of daily life, people tend to lose sight of the connections between our quality of life and
social/economic policies unless under extreme circumstances. There is a great need for explanatory
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mechanisms that will help people better fathom the impact of legislation and policy upon their lives.
Bringing people into democratic processes by means of open debates on national priorities, for example,
or making federal budgeting accessible to lay readers, strengthens minds as well as voices. Issues such
as Medicare expansion, living wages, estate taxation, long-term capital gains vs income tax, and many
other are often at the heart of ongoing liberal vs. conservative debates and pose a great challenge to
trans-partisan cooperation. Connecting the dots between the abstract principles of democratic process
and hardcore issues should not be an exceptional state of affairs. Rather, it must become a natural part of
our lives as citizens.
The well-being of human beings is dependent upon her or his sense of belonging. We both strive for and
enjoy meaningful connection with others. Community development is thus an important factor in
sustaining civic engagement. True community is antithetical to “insulating bubbles” which lead to
ideologically entrenched groups and polarization. It provides a safe place to discuss and resolve
differences of thought while being civil and respectful. The best societal outcomes derive from a
competition of ideas that should be vetted among people and subject matter experts representing a
diversity of perspectives.
People want results. True citizenship requires results. There is, indeed, an essential link between
strengthening one’s inner vision for change and concrete change itself. Working together at a large scale
(picture, here, a societal flash mob), and outside of typical boundaries or silos, there is no doubt that we
will drive substantial change and evolve toward the democracy we all know is possible. The courage to
stand up is strengthened both by inspiration and by concrete wins. And the latter requires, once again,
keen tactics and strategies that come from the people.
When people strategize, engage in, and achieve important wins – whether it is passing an anti-corruption
bill in Florida, an anti-fracking bill in Texas, protecting voter rights where they are under attack, or working
to expand Medicare – those who play a role in such outcomes will be empowered by the victory.
Likewise, positive change that results from citizen engagement is meaningful and adapted to social
context. Such change will not only sustain the spirits and democratic traditions of those involved, it will go
down in history as an example for future generations of the significant role of empowerment in the viability
civ.works is a social media platform that is designed to promote civic participation.
civ.works is a project of Civic Works, an Oregon-based 501c3 non-profit organization promoting civic
engagement through technology and media.
About the author
George A. Polisner is the founder of the non-profit civ.works -a privacy-protected social network built
for civic engagement. Prior to founding civ.works George worked in product development, performance
engineering, service design and management at Oracle Corp, Dell, HP and at the Legislative Counsel for
the State of California. He also serves on the Board of Peace Action, produces a socio-economic and
political program for community radio in Lincoln County, Oregon and speaks on issues related to politics,
corporate social behavior, healthcare as a human right, voter suppression and participatory democracy.
Jun. 18, 2017
May. 22, 2017
May. 16, 2017
May. 15, 2017
Sustaining Civic Engagement, the Life Cycle of an Action, Citizen Empowerment