I have spent the better part of the past year investigating civic life in America.
Last spring, on behalf of the organizations TurboVote and Reboot, I embedded for a week at a time in six different elections offices across this country, ranging from Brattleboro, Vermont, to Travis County, Texas. I met public innovators working hard behind the scenes, but I also found lumbering bureaucracies dependent on legacy technology systems. I observed legislative environments hostile to voter-centric improvement efforts and found funding diminishing for even the most basic of public services.
In the past few months, I conducted in-depth interviews with about 20 people from California, Massachusetts, and New York about what motivates them to participate in civic life and what holds them back, even when they have strong opinions about an issue. A few were actively involved in anti-gun violence programs or civil rights campaigns, but most would be described as “interested bystanders”—people who pay attention to the world around them, but don’t generally take action on issues that disturb them.
Most recently, I’ve been talking to civic entrepreneurs, foundations, journalists, government officials, and technologists about what a new convening space for civic innovation could look like in New York City. New York may be known by some as “New Tech City” and has expended considerable resources to attract tech enterprises to build, hire, and expand within its borders. Nonetheless, many of its citizens still live marginalized existences. In spite of many efforts, the Big Apple still only graduates about 65 percent of students who begin high school. Unemployment is only slowly recovering from highs of nearly 10 percent last year, and while part-time work is readily available, full-time jobs can be particularly hard to come by for residents in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
Yes, we have figured out how to use technology to organize travel, set up a date, order a taxi, purchase clothing, and share the experience instantly on a plethora of social platforms. Those things are fine—they drive economic activity, save consumers time, and seem to give a lot of people pleasure.
But I have come to the conclusion that the digerati of our generation—to be clear, that’s me, that’s probably you, that’s our well-educated friends living modern, seamless lives in some of the world’s most cosmopolitan places—need to be solving harder problems.
There are lots of really unsexy, highly complicated, largely behind-the-scenes public challenges that remain mostly unaddressed. Take for instance the problems of 21st century elections in the United States, of disability benefits disbursement to veterans returning from war, or of reintegrating into society people who have served their time for past criminal acts.
These problems involve people who are among the most marginalized in our society. They require the reform of government systems in which most of us have lost hope. They are not just technical problems, but managerial ones, and are often enmeshed in politics.
But they are important problems. How do we maintain our historic democracy? How can we uphold the promises we made when veterans performed their public service? How can we embody for former inmates the American value that people deserve second chances?
Fortunately, tech-savvy civic entrepreneurs are also looking for important problems to solve, and forward-looking government employees are seeking more efficient mechanisms for delivering services to citizens. A few examples:
- In the U.S., about half of people vote in national elections. The folks at TurboVote built a service that tracks all elections in a voter’s district, making it easier to stay electorally engaged. They send voters all the materials and information needed to register, stay registered, and cast ballots in every election, from municipal to national. They even mail voters forms with an addressed, stamped envelope for their local election office. This winter, they are also starting to build tools to help local election administrators streamline operations and improve voter services. By making it easier to vote, TurboVote is encouraging greater citizen involvement in democracy. With robust and repeated input from elections officials themselves, TurboVote is making it easier and less costly to run elections.
- It can take up to two years for U.S. veterans to be connected to the physical and mental health, employment, and educational services they are entitled to upon discharge from their service. My friend Mollie Ruskin, a service designer embedded in the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) as a Presidential Innovation Fellow, is working this year to help the VA create people-centered, intuitive service delivery experiences for veterans, using tools and methodologies widely used in the private sector. As a result of these efforts, veterans should receive the services they need much more quickly than they are now.
We need more such people willing to dig in on complicated and important problems. We also need to find better ways to incentivize people who do not ordinarily think of themselves as public problem-solvers. Civic entrepreneurs can support governments and citizens alike in deploying new innovations that, over time, help us all address serious problems plaguing our society. We don’t have more time to spare on distractions that pull us away from this higher mission.
Kate Krontiris is a researcher, strategist, and facilitator based in New York City, focusing largely on civic engagement and technology in the United States. She will moderate a session on the future of U.S. elections at the Nov. 11-13 Techonomy 2013 conference.