Next week, Harvard University professors Susan Crawford and Stephen Goldsmith
will present their new book, The Responsive City, Engaging Communities through Data-Smart Governance (New York: Jossey-Bass, 2014) at a New American Foundation (@newamerica) book event here in Washington, D.C.
I am looking forward to this event because “engagement” seems to have become a popular word among all sorts of people.
The New York Times in its “innovation report” said it wanted to become more “engaged with its readers.”
According to Columbia Journalism Review, a group of Alabama newspapers tried to get “reader engagement” in a series of investigative stories about prisons last summer (http://www.cjr.org/united_states_project/reader_engagement_alabama_cir_prison_series.php?page=all)
The Knight Foundation has partnered with Mozilla Festival using almost $4 million to engage “developers, technologists, civic hackers, and data crunchers” with paid 10-month fellowships to develop open-source projects for newsrooms (http://opennews.org/)
The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching even has a Community Engagement Classification for universities. It requires “evidence-based documentation of institutional practice to be used in a process of self-assessment and quality improvement” (http://classifications.carnegiefoundation.org/descriptions/community_engagement.php)
Engagement seems to mean everything from pay-for-product contracts to metrics for assessing audience attitudes to attention-getting techniques for work being produced and much, much more.
It begs the question of what “engagement” really means, what it means to be “engaged” with an audience or a citizen.
The emerging usage seems to imply that engagement involves doing something or deciding something, then assessing how it’s received through some kind of feedback loop.
I was reminded of this last week when I attended a meeting of our local school board. The board had reached a series of controversial decisions. These decisions seemed to have been reached by administrators, their supporters and the school board. The decisions were then announced to the public. When the school board got pushback, they announced a series of meetings, which they called “engagement.” At these meetings representatives made clear that the decisions would not be changed, but might be “tweaked.”
Like so many forms of “engagement” in the early 21st century, particularly civic engagement, the dynamic seems to be: “we decide, we announce our decision, we take feedback (usually structured through polls we conduct through specific questions we ask), then we modify our decision just enough to reduce resistance to our decision.
In other words, “engagement” has become a form of strategic manipulation.
This is not my idea of civic engagement.
The American philosopher John Dewey long ago argued that democracy consists of citizens talking with each other about shared problems, working out ways they might solve those problems, creating civic structures to solve those problems, then examining together whether those solutions worked. Civil structures and civic structures result from that process. They are useful as long as they respond to that process.
Civic engagement is about citizens sharing their understanding of the separate worlds they live in because of their individual experiences. This sharing unveils separate ways of seeing things and reveals new understandings about the problems we face and the things we see. This requires conversations and discourse.
This sort of discourse does still happen. It usually happens in churches, in political discussions, in grassroots advocacy organizations.
The best of journalism and the best of politics happens when editors or politicians sit down and talk with people about their problems. The worst of it happens when decisions are made in isolation then put out there for “comment,” particularly comment in the form of multiple-choice surveys.
“Engagement” and “discourse” will be stronger when it stops being “feedback” and returns to authentic conversation and discussion.