The institutional language of engagement has been defined by its measurement. Chief engagement officers in corporations are measuring milliseconds on web pages, and clicks on ads, and not relations among people. This is disproportionately influencing the values of democracy and the responsibility of public institutions to protect them.
Too often, when government talks about engagement, it is talking those things that are measurable, but it is providing mandates to employees imbued with ambiguity.
That’s Eric Gordon, writing about how civic engagement is understood and incentivized by city governments in the US. He goes on to argue that institutions of governance need to conceptualize civic engagement as more than market efficiency, and begin thinking towards a “relational approach” to civics in which “public institutions create value systems and metrics that support long-term relationship building in addition to short-term attention.”
Gordon contextualizes his argument in terms to the US presidential election, and how to pick up the pieces of America’s civic contract that will be scattered in it’s wake. He also makes a passing reference to a technological shift which I think is pretty central to understanding his argument and its implications.
Digital media has exploded the menu of civic engagement far beyond voting, campaign volunteering and buying fair trade coffee. Novel forms of civic engagement (from online consultations and participatory platforms, to slacktivism and complaint mechanisms) force new forms of interaction between civics-minded people and their governing institutions. And yes, the latter have only just begun to see it on the horizon.
The importance of measurement as a limiting factor is also key here, in the academy and in government alike. Scholars are actively struggling to detangle the concepts of civic engagement, political participation and citizenship, both from each other and from everything those concepts imply in a digital media landscape.
This is essentially a problem of metrics and definitions, and it’s key to the contribution research can make to government practice. When we figure out how to identify and assess the novel ways in which tech facilitates relationships and exchanges between people and governing institutions, we’ll also know more about how and when it adds value (see my recent post on civic interaction). We’ll also be able to help governments measure (and thus pursue) more meaningful engagement than web visits.