We all like to believe we live our lives in a way that's socially-conscious and politically-aware -- after all, we cast our vote for a new president once every four years. But we forget that democracy means more than just voting. Civic engagement is the crux of any representative government, but too few citizens get involved on a regular basis to ensure their voice is heard.
Civic engagement in the U.S. has been helped along by the rise of the digital age, which allows for an easy way to share news items and have political discussions without leaving the comfort of our homes. In 2012, 17 percent of adults posted political articles on social media sites, and 19 percent posted other political content.
But the Web has also given rise to a new form of inactivity: slacktivism. Many people are politically disengaged but believe they're making a significant difference by participating in temporary, feel-good measures that rarely result in change. Simply posting links to news articles does little to correct policy, injustices, or other issues in the real world.
If we want to avoid becoming slacktivists, it's worth taking a look at the ways we can get engaged in our local community and national political processes. Below is a guide to help you participate in civic engagement and truly make a difference in the political realm:
1. Follow the news. Planting the seeds for a civically-engaged life starts with becoming informed on key issues. Keep up with the news and tune in to concerns that arise in your local community. Check multiple news sources to ensure you're getting the full story. If there's an issue that concerns you, start talking to friends and family to see if there's any interest in organizing to spread awareness or otherwise affect change.
2. Harness the Web. As stated above, the Internet offers a permeating force for sharing information, holding discussions and organizing both within and beyond your local community. In the U.S., Internet activists helped dismantle harmful legislation like SOPA and PIPA, the introduction of which led to massive online outcry. Major sites like Google, Wikipedia, and Reddit even blacked out their homepages in protest. You can use social networking sites, blogs, and online forums to share news items or encourage your legislators to adopt technology that allows them to pool citizen voices online and boost government transparency.
3. Contact your elected officials. Remember, your legislators are elected to be accountable to you and other members of the public -- don't underestimate your own voice. Use online tools like USA.gov to find contact information for your representatives. Send emails, make phone calls, leave messages, write letters, and visit their offices to ensure they're kept accountable, and encourage your family and friends to do so, as well.
4. Organize public rallies. The No. 1 way to avoid slacktivism is to organize in the public sphere. A large showing of people can do wonders to get the word out about key issues and start a public conversation. Start a Facebook event to gauge interest for public rallies. Organize a critical mass, sit-in, or march. Hold signs on a street corner, pass out informational fliers, or speak at a local town hall meeting. Remember to contact local journalists, who are often willing to cover protests and other public rallies.
5. Hold a fundraiser -- with caution. Money isn't always the answer to fixing societal problems -- often, these issues run much deeper. Sometimes, it's structural or organizational inadequacies that lead to some of the world's biggest problems. Still, if you believe raising money for a cause can affect positive change, this can be a great option for spreading the word and helping your local community to get engaged in key issues. Just be sure your money ends up in the right hands -- sites like charitynavigator.org can help you to identify the most transparent organizations.
6. Crowdsource ideas. When it comes to raising public awareness about key community concerns, crowdsourcing via online hubs can be an effective strategy to get the attention of government officials. For instance, in Austin, TX, citizens voted to improve local transit by installing bike share hubs throughout the city. The idea quickly became one of the highest-voted on the city's public forum, and soon after, the Public Works Department built a plan to implement the program.
7. Volunteer. There are likely to be plenty of organizations already dedicated to civic engagement in your local community. Check out nonprofits, political organizations, or even soup kitchens that may need assistance. Dedicating just an hour a week to volunteer efforts can make a big change.
Remember, creating more inclusive democracy is a two-way initiative and must involve participation from legislators as well. Government officials are increasingly adopting civic engagement technologies, focusing on hackathons and government 2.0 initiatives to get citizens and government connected.
This guide offers just a few options for addressing issues of public concern. Every citizen has the agency and opportunity to get involved in civic acts -- and our democracy depends on it.
Tom Spengler is the CEO and co-founder of Granicus, an award-winning cloud applications provider for government transparency, efficiency, and citizen participation. Connect with Tom and the Granicus team on Twitter and LinkedIn.