I find the process of civic engagement and public outreach, in general, a very interesting process. To me, it seems like many people are not complacent to the issues around them, but rather, don’t know or understand the avenues of communication available to them. This is precisely why it has become so important for civic servants/community-based organizations to evolve and grow in their strategies to reach out to the public. In this way, there need to be multiple platforms for engagement. At this point, in the digital age, organizations will probably have to maintain a strong presence through social media and other forms of digital outreach. However, in-person meetings and events will always be crucial, but digital platforms should be utilized to get the word out. Nonetheless, organizations should also be creative in utilizing numerous avenues in reaching out to communities.
In Building Social Capital in the Digital Age of Civic Engagement, I really appreciate the author’s shout-out to Arnstein’s Ladder of Citizen Participation. Since I started my studies in community development this reading has resonated with me on a personal and professional level. In considering how the public is affected by decisions made by private and government entities I have considered this reading. So often, I feel that the communities don’t have an adequate voice in the planning process, let alone adequate decision-making. Despite the difficulty of getting communities engaged in civic issues, I feel that organizations such as The Philadelphia Citizens Planning Institute are a step in the right direction in ensuring that actual people take charge and make an instrumental change in their neighborhood while engaging others in the process. Moreover, I think that other events implemented by community-based organizations or other community groups that simply invite the public to join are important in gaining the attention and interest of people. For example, I think Young Involved Philadelphia is a good example of an organization that engages people and has been effective in getting attention from other organizations, as well. In these cases, I think digital communications (e-vites, blogs, websites with events sections, etc.) are ideal for reaching out to many different social groups. However, there is certainly a difficulty in reaching other groups as well as creating rapport between members of communities and organizations.
Regardless of the efficiency of the multitude of avenues in outreach the internet provides, it is still difficult to meet the initial hurdle of creating rapport between an organization and community member, and community member to other community members. I would agree with some of the statements made throughout the article, Building Social Capital in the Digital Age of Civic Engagement, especially concerning how “place” is still an important factor in maintaining social capital and engagement. It is true, that the internet helps facilitate coordination and communication, but still, should not be replaced for face-to-face interaction, nor should people ignore the importance of serving a “place”, i.e. community, neighborhood, etc. The publication, Using Online Tools to Engage–and be Engaged by–The Public, also conveys the importance of maintaining actual face-to-face contact in order to maintain rapport among different people. Similarly, my thought-process for engagement is similar to that of Fredericks and Foth call for a “hybrid approach in engagement” in the article: Augmenting public participation: enhancing planning outcomes through the use of social media and web 2.0. Moreover, it is also an important point, that not all households/people have access to the internet, making it all the more important to emphasize the hybridization of outreach. But I believe there is a trend where internet accessibility is becoming less of the case as smart phones and public computers are utilized (and as technology becomes more inexpensive and necessary).
Fredericks and Foth make an excellent point about how tools under “Web 2.0” have revolutionized how information and communication forms. This exactly aligns with my belief. What also struck a chord with me was when this article mentioned how e-democracy/e-government are given “lip-service” without really utilizing it in a positive and progressive manner (probably one of the lower rungs of Arnstein’s ladder). This is definitely a concern I, and I am sure others have with the utilization of facebook, twitter, and government forums in terms of forming outreach. Nonetheless, I see the use of facebook and twitter as a helpful tool in getting the word out about events (i.e. planning commission meetings) as a helpful tool for outreach for gaining community insight.
In terms of information-sharing and engagement, I absolutely see an issue within the ability for the “loudest” to be heard in social media, blogging, and forums, as conveyed in Building Social Capital in the Digital Age of Civic Engagement. However, how is this really any different from what you may see at a community meeting? For example, at a municipal planning commission meeting, there is likely to be several people fighting for one issue (perhaps only their own) overshadowing others. In this way, I don’t see a difference, except for the fact that those using the internet will likely have a wider audience. Ultimately, Web 2.0 and digital information sharing for civic engagement should not replace actual hands-on community contact. There is something special about the ability to come together in person to volunteer and ensure our voices are heard. But these advances enable a wider array of audiences to be heard (including younger people whom typically are underrepresented), a point that is continuously made throughout Augmenting public participation: enhancing planning outcomes through the use of social media and web 2.0.
In sum, civic engagement in the era of expanding digital technology makes for exciting and growing opportunities to reach out to potential clients and communities. I believe that the growth of technologies has only improved the ability to create connections between different entities, and therefore, expand social capital and civic participation. The way I see it, organizations have become good, if not talented, at figuring out the best outlets to engage and get answers from the public. Through the internet and social media, organizations have been able to navigate the best resources for creating contact with people. I believe that using digital means for initial engagement is meaningful and perhaps necessary, but after this hurdle is met, then face-to-face interaction through focus groups, clubs, charrettes, and other events will also be necessary to maintain necessary human and community contact. Digital engagement is by no means perfect, but I see it as a step in the right direction of creating contacts and providing information that might not exist otherwise.
Joel Fredericks & Marcus Foth (2013) Augmenting public participation: enhancing planning outcomes through the use of social media and web 2.0, Australian Planner, 50:3, 244-256, DOI: 10.1080/07293682.2012.748083
Leighninger, Matt. Using Online Tools to Engage–and Be Engaged By–The Public. Publication. Washington, DC: IBM Center for the Business of Government, n.d. Print. Using Technology.
Building Social Capital in the Digital Age of Civic Engagement, Lynn Mandarano, Mahbubur Meenar and Christopher Steins, Journal of Planning Literature 2010 25: 123, DOI: 10.1177/0885412210394102