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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Civic Engagement in the Digital Age

Carrie Jaffe-Pickett
L-R: Norman Kline, Ken Manaster, Allen Hammond

L-R: Norman Kline, Ken Manaster, Allen Hammond

"Civic Engagement in the Digital Age" was the focus of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics Public Sector Roundtable on March 13, 2015. Panelists were: Norman Kline, vice chair of Common Cause California and former mayor of Saratoga; Allen S. Hammond IV, Phil and Bobbie Sanfilippo Chair and Professor of Law at SCU School of Law and Director of the Broadband Institute of California; and Kenneth A. Manaster, author and presidential professor of Ethics and the Common Good at SCU School of Law. They spoke before an audience of local officials from Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area. The panelists focused on the challenges of technology and dialogue in the digital age. MCAE Director of Government Ethics Hana Callaghan moderated.

Transparency Without Simplicity Isn’t Transparency

Norman Kline raised foundational questions about the intersection of technology and civic action in the political realm: What do we do about information overload? How can we ensure that everyone will be heard (the democratization of information) when many lack access to digital technology? Are some websites more trustworthy than others? How can government use technology to be more transparent?

"Transparency without simplicity isn't transparency," Kline commented, noting that "government and government websites need to be simplified." He also suggested that education, civics training, transparency, and innovation in the world of technology, are key benchmarks for successful civic engagement in the digital age.

Kline noted the public’s lack of trust in government institutions and online media, adding, however, "We don't trust anything, but we do trust our family and friends." He then introduced several political websites that highlight the importance of social community in not only keeping us informed, but also potentially influencing our political decision making. For example, Map Light, whose tagline is: “Celebrating 10 Years of Revealing Money’s Influence on Politics,” provides data on both campaign finance and voting behavior in one database. provides a communications platform for over 54,000 neighborhoods across the country for community issues, while empowers millennials toward political awareness and action.

Facebook, used daily by fifty percent of the population, is certainly a contender in boosting interactive communications in politics, as static websites, which often have few if any repeat visitors, prove to be less effective communication tools for government officials. Has the time come for Facebook to revolutionize elections?  Common Cause California has sponsored a popular Facebook application called which reveals the “Likes” of users’ Facebook friends on policies, platforms, and candidates, making users’ trusted circles an influence on their political views and behavior.

Should elected officials use these platforms to advance their own views?  In this area, legislators must strike a delicate balance. "When you wear the legislative hat, you can't be afraid to speak out," the panel pointed out, as a demanding and increasingly sophisticated audience expects that much.  But public officials should be careful not to pre-commit to particular decisions about official matters before their agency has the opportunity for full public hearings. They also must be wary of potential Brown Act violations if other officials join in the online conversation. Ultimately, this is where sound judgment comes in.

The Net Neutrality Debate: An Example of Civic Engagement

Allen Hammond provided an overview on civic engagement challenges from an economic standpoint, focusing primarily on public participation in the recent Net Neutrality Rulemaking, where income and education played a major role. Hammond pointed out that a significant percentage of wealthy Americans polled were in favor of Net Neutrality, while over 60 percent of low income and poor Americans reported not caring about the issue.  (GetVoip Survey)  This was despite the FCC’s publicity about the rulemaking being an “unqualified success,” with “the vast majority of nearly 4 million Americans speaking up in favor of preserving a free and open Internet.” (FCC Report & Order.)

However, according to Civic Engagement in the Digital Age published by the Pew Research Center, the breakdown of those who participated by income raises a critical question: “Class differences…related to educational attainment, are prominent in political engagement of all kinds, whether that activity takes place offline, online, or within the context of social networking sites.”

Poor broadband access is a key barrier to engagement, Hammond said, with greater access directly correlated to those earning $75,000 a year. Smartphone users represent a surprisingly high percentage of low to moderate income populations ($30,000 – $74,000), so greater broadband access could facilitate their political participation.  It also could improve minority civic engagement. The breakdown for smartphone use from the Pew Internet & American Life Survey 2013 is: 27 percent white; 43 percent black – non Hispanic; and 60 percent Hispanic.

It’s important to note that until a recent FCC ruling, many states placed substantial restrictions on municipal broadband initiatives, including outright bans in several states. The larger issue going forward, therefore, will be: Who will have access to broadband and how?

Thinking Like a Lawyer Provides Sound Engagement Model

Ken Manaster integrated concepts from his book: The American Legal System and Civic Engagement: Why We Should All Think Like Lawyers (Palgrave MacMillan, 2013) as a framework for his presentation, offering best practices on political decision making and critical thinking from our legal system.

Solid goals for civic engagement can parallel not only legal principles but also "good journalism," Manaster said. They include a determination to derive the truth, corroborate multiple resources when there is scant or questionable information, and expand our boundaries to consider platforms and ideas we may not agree with.

Manaster emphasized the importance of education for civic engagement, stating that educators can and should "breathe new life" into civics education, with the hope that this will ultimately lead to more informed decision making.

In terms of the legal framework for political thought and action, we must ask ourselves what guidance the legal system, with its "well established system and tools," provides to the general public. In considering the issues, we need to focus on active listening, relevancy, and appreciating the complexity and implications of our choices. The jury duty model is a good example of best practices. We assume when citizens report to jury duty that they will act responsibly. Why not have the same expectations for the public in engaging in the political process?

What does the future hold in civic engagement? The panel suggested that despite our growing reliance on technology, offline interactions will always be an important form of communication.

Carrie Jaffe-Pickett is assistant director of communications and social marketing for the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

Oct 23, 2015
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