The second week in Frankfort is learning all about civic engagement. We attended many meetings which covered different topics such as downtown Frankfort revitalisation, neighbourhood enhancement, and social events for the citizens. One observation was that people’s participation at public meetings was low. There weren’t many people came to the meeting and participated in the meetings.
My brain started alarming; why? and why? and why? Questions came into my mind were: Is this because of representative democracy? Do citizens become passive by relying too much on their city commissioners and Mayor who they voted? What else if it isn’t a public consultation meeting? Are meetings are so boring? etc. These reminded me an article I read recently stated that Americans’ participation in civic life—or “civic engagement”— has declined dramatically. I asked myself, Is this true?
Later on, I realised that the city government of Frankfort shared information through different channels such as radio, television, newspaper and social media and listened their voices and brought their inputs. I realised that people didn’t necessarily need to be physically present at the meetings. Well, in this high-tech society, there are many ways/tools/means for civic engagement. There are variety of old and new mediums to bring citizens’ inputs and share information. So I could not definitely say that civic engagement is low by only looking at the people who came to the meetings.
On the other hand, we don’t really know whether people access to information, utilise and contribute inputs. The key is how you share information, seek public participation and promote civic engagement. I prefer using participatory tools which bring people to be physically present at the meetings rather than being passive on social media. This is important for me, especially when people today live in virtual world through their mobile phones rather than in their physical world interacting with people sharing their ideas and stories.
In this regards, the City Hall at Frankfort has lots of ideas and participatory tools to offer me!!!
My favourite one was the tool on bringing people’s active participation with the use of an envelop filled with paper dollars, stickers and sticky notes. At the meeting, each participated were provided with an envelope. Then all the participants were provided with the information about the meeting, which is about the new project on infrastructure for the city hall. All the participants were asked for their opinion on design and budget expense for buildings. The participants can stand up and explain their ideas. And they have to use their envelopes to decide how much they want to spend on different components of the building. In addition to paper dollars, there were other stickers which could be used as their votes to their preferences. Sticky notes were provided to write down any ideas you could share. Such a cool idea to bring public opinion on the proposed project by the city government!
In my opinion, expressing an opinion as citizens through their active participation is an important element of civic engagement. Civic participation is a necessary way to influence political decision-making and citizens need to take direct action to be heard.
So what can we do? Well, we need to diversify participatory tools and be creative to promote civic engagement in this social media age to accommodate both elderly and young people. Civic engagement is a critical element of democracy.