American Jobs Plan offers opportunity to invest in ‘civic infrastructure’
President Biden’s American Jobs Plan includes a welcome acknowledgment of the need to bolster and invest in “civic infrastructure” — an opportunity to make Tocqueville’s “schools of democracy” a 21st-century American reality.
According to Jill Blair and Malka Kopell in a 2015 Aspen report, “civic infrastructure” includes the “system of organizations and relationships — with the explicit goal of maximizing public participation and agency in service of better public problem-solving.” In today’s hyperpolarized environment, revitalized civic infrastructure could open pathways for meaningful engagement with neighbors and institutions and create opportunities for a shared sense of collective good and agency to bridge our divides.
We are living with the consequences of broken or nonexistent civic infrastructure and the erosion of the “common knowledge” that a functioning democracy requires. Two-thirds of Americans would not pass the U.S. citizenship exam; 75 percent cannot name all three branches of government, 20 percent can’t even name one; most Americans have no idea how state government works, less than 20 percent can name their state rep.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans stayed home and online. Social interactions migrated almost exclusively to gaming sites and social media. Conspiracy theories proliferated in the vacuum. Gaming experts recognized “psychological lures that make ARGs (alternate-reality games) so fun” in the pernicious “QAnon.” Americans increasingly found themselves in ideological media silos where, as Nathan J. Robinson put it, “the truth is paywalled and the lies are free.”
Misinformation and inadequate or nonexistent civic infrastructure proved especially dangerous for pandemic response. A $44 million Vaccine Administration Management System was abandoned due to technical problems in all but nine states. For nine Florida counties, that meant turning to commercial software, Eventbrite, to manage signups for vaccine appointments. And then came the scammers — charging unsuspecting seniors for fake coronavirus vaccination appointments. But, of course, the problem didn’t start with coronavirus.
Government has struggled for years to address fraudulent robocalls and mailers purporting to be the IRS, the Social Security Administration or the Patent Office. Is it really impossible to create a system of public notice in which the public can be sure it is engaging with the actual government? In our world of active, amplified disinformation, that cannot be the case. As the Biden administration’s new Director of GSA’s Technology Transformation Services, Dave Zvenyach, recently said, “Every moment an individual interacts with a government service is an opportunity to rebuild their trust.”
Prioritizing civic infrastructure will require investments at both the federal and hyper-local level to create structures and processes for trusted information and meaningful grassroots engagement. This is especially important for people of color and indigenous communities that have historically not been at the table when issues were decided. Effective civic infrastructure cannot be limited to public participation and outgoing information from the government. However; it must also address the “last mile” of ensuring public input is valued, considered and incorporated into the actual substance of policymaking, implementation, and oversight.
Furthermore, civic infrastructure is not just about technology or processes. It includes a recommitment to the brick and mortar spaces where people come together to engage in civic and communal life — from libraries and recreation centers to religious gathering places and parks.
A renewed focus on civic infrastructure will require investment in communities, empowering local leaders, and partnering with state and local governments. It will require holding the civic space for difficult and important conversations, recognizing the impact of structural racism on our country and bringing everyone to the table to build a better and more resilient infrastructure for our democracy.
As the American Jobs Act is considered, debated, refined, and potentially implemented at all levels of government and overseen by executive and legislative branch officials, it presents an opportunity to demonstrate what is possible. It should be co-created with all Americans, providing opportunities for input, prioritizing local needs as expressed by residents of local communities. Whether online or in-person as the pandemic allows, there should be gatherings and discussions about the proposals it contains.
Programs — whether new transit systems or environmental remediation — should bake in requirements for innovative engagement, keeping people informed (in plain language) and receiving input in ways that go beyond a typical “notice and comment” structure. The American Jobs Plan should be undertaken in partnership by and with Americans. It should prioritize clear information and engagement and serve a “civic infrastructure” model and foundation for future initiatives.
Hollie Russon Gilman, Ph.D., is a fellow at New America and Columbia World Projects. She is the co-author of “Civic Power: Rebuilding American Democracy in an Era of Inequality” and served in the Obama administration as the White House open government and innovation advisor.
Marci Harris is CEO and co-founder of POPVOX, a nonpartisan platform for legislative information and civic engagement.