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Bringing Civic Engagement Into the 21st Century | Commentary

The 21st century has afforded us new technology that allows us tools to be connected in ways we never have been before. Social media and the mobile Web are bringing voices together every day, but, surprisingly, government is still clinging to outdated methods when it comes to driving civic engagement.

The number of Americans using mobile technology is staggering — nearly 60 percent of Americans now own a smartphone, up from just 46 percent in February 2012. And by 2015, it’s predicted that 65 percent of Americans will own a smartphone, tablet or both.

Citizens aren’t just playing Angry Birds — they’re using devices to keep up with current events and engage with other community members in new ways. A recent Pew Internet poll found that, when using their smartphones, 64 percent of Americans read the news, 68 percent access a social-networking site, and 31 percent visit a local, state or federal government website. Why, then, have government officials not latched on to this medium to drive engagement?

At the federal level, there has been some attempt to hear citizen concerns, but the barriers to entry are high. The White House’s We the People site allows citizens to sign online petitions on issues that matter to them, but a petition needs 100,000 signatures to receive a response from the White House.

According to a recent report from the Congressional Research Service, 83.4 percent of congressional representatives and senators are registered on Twitter, and 90 percent are registered on Facebook. Still, the level of engagement with citizens on these platforms is relatively low — registered members send an average of “1.24 Tweets and .63 Facebook posts per day.” In fact, the top 20 percent of congressional members using Twitter and Facebook accounted for a whopping 50 percent of all tweets and posts during the study. It’s promising that so many congressional leaders have recognized the need to have a presence on these platforms, but posting one tweet per day doesn’t do much to engage citizens or earn feedback on key issues.

On the state level, government leaders rarely use mobile technology to fuel civic engagement. Legislators still largely pool citizen ideas by holding in-person meetings, such as planning public events, but these aren’t efficient for collecting large pools of data on key issues.

But there is some hope. Federal and state government leaders may be ignoring mobile technology trends, but on the local level some cities have chosen to implement technology like my company’s to get citizen feedback. iLegislate is a mobile app that allows government leaders to connect and seek feedback from community members. They can use social platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to gain feedback, and citizens can share ideas, vote in polls and comment on agenda items. iLegislate then crunches the data and brings it directly to a legislator’s mobile device, making it easily accessible when it’s needed most — right before making decisions or voting on key agenda items.

In Austin, Texas, integrating mobile technology for civic engagement has worked well. The community recently launched an effort called Speak Up Austin in which it created an online portal for users to share their thoughts on community issues and raise concerns. So far, Austin has more than 2,000 registered users on the site. More than 800 ideas have been generated from the community, and the city has received a whopping 5,280 votes and 1,055 comments on legislative issues. More than 50 of these publicly brainstormed ideas are in action, while 23 have been fully implemented.

Austin is a testament to the way online and mobile tools can battle civic apathy. With the rise of the Web and the increasing prevalence of mobile devices in American hands, government officials and congressional leaders no longer have any excuse to ignore the tools that can help them to easily fuel civic participation in the legislative process.

If government leaders really want citizens to feel their voices are being heard, it’s time to stop ignoring technological trends and bring civic engagement into the 21st century once and for all.

Tom Spengler is the CEO and co-founder of Granicus, an applications provider for government transparency, efficiency and citizen participation.

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