Politicians' outdated strategies crush civic engagement

The Congressional approval rating among Americans has plunged to just six percent, according to a Rasmussen Reports survey. Sixty-four percent of Americans cite Congress’ performance as poor, and 41 percent said they disapprove of the way the representative from their congressional district is handling his or her job. Since the beginning of 2011, Congressional approval hasn’t inched higher than 24 percent. And in the 2012 election, nearly half of Americans--93 million eligible citizens, or about 40 percent--didn’t vote.

The decrease in civic engagement and growing political apathy is causing a plunge in Americans’ optimism about the system that represents them. In a 2011 Pew Research Center survey, 69 percent of Americans said politicians don't care what average Americans think, and 72 percent said that, once politicians are elected, they lose touch with voters. Representatives are tasked with being the voice of the people, but too many Americans believe their voice isn’t being heard.

The root of the problem is politicians at the federal, state, and local levels are ignoring technological advancements that could help them to do their job better: namely, mobile devices.

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Historically, only those Americans with adequate resources were able to participate in civic engagement efforts -- those with higher income, education, and skills have been more likely to get involved and believe the system will respond. But today, more than half of Americans own tools they can use to organize. Sixty-one percent of Americans, or 137 million people, now own smartphones -- more people than the 126 million who voted in the 2012 national election. And by 2016, the number of American smartphone owners is projected to jump to 192 million.

Americans now have access to a wide breadth of tools that allow them to instantly communicate, share Web links, organize activism efforts, create discussion boards, participate in polls, create e-petitions, and connect on social media. The national conversation is happening on these mobile devices, but politicians haven’t caught up. Most legislators still require constituents to leave a message with their staffers, find time to attend a public meeting, or send an email--one that will likely go unanswered--to make their stance known. Legislators are wasting time and resources on outdated strategies for polling public opinion, ignoring the fact that a better platform is already under their noses.

While the White House has made some efforts to engage with citizens via the mobile Web, we’ve seen little policy changes as a result. The White House’s We The People e-petition site now requires 100,000 signatures to warrant a response, up from just 5,000 in 2011. President Obama has held Twitter town halls, but the platform hasn’t been used to gather data or create discussions -- instead, citizen questions are carefully chosen beforehand, allowing for a one-way conversation.

But some communities are finally harnessing the power of mobile devices to pool citizen opinions. The city of Austin, Texas, for example, has worked with my company to create an online portal to fuel civic engagement. Speak Up, Austin! now has more than 2,000 registered users participating in discussions, sharing policy ideas and commenting on key issues. More than 50 ideas brainstormed by the public are now in action, and 23 have been fully implemented in the city. Overall, more than 800 ideas have been generated from community members, and the city has gathered 5,280 votes and 1,055 comments. Citizens are using mobile devices to quickly and easily start discussions -- and it's resulting in real change.

If legislators want to show they’re listening, they can’t stick to their outdated methods of taking questions, having staffers answer phone calls, or expecting citizens to attend meetings. Citizens can now be invited to participate openly in debates and policy ideas using tools they already have in the palms of their hands.

As mobile devices continue to spread throughout the country, legislators’ strategies for fueling civic engagement must change. Legislators no longer have any excuse to keep citizens out of the legislative process -- and it’s time they show us they’re listening.

Spengler is the CEO and co-founder of Granicus, an award-winning cloud applications provider for government transparency, efficiency, and citizen participation.