Americans by large margins say that government does not work for them. Studies show that the views of average people are not well represented and people don’t believe they are heard by those in power. This crisis of representation often leads to a crisis in participation. Solutions to the low levels of engagement and lack of faith in democracy, its institutions, and its representatives tend to lack sustainability and scalability. Proposed solutions often favor technocratic expertise over experience. Apps and new data sets become the way to just fix problems in the short term; metrics and measurable wins take precedence over collaborative policymaking and genuine constituent empowerment that would lead to sustainable improvements in the quality of life for all.
Fresh thinking about civic engagement does not have to be complex. The best approaches go back to the basics, ask the right questions, and focus on the people. Well-designed partnerships among the public, private, and nonprofit sectors, along with philanthropic and public investment in physical spaces, informed by the lessons of human-centered design can help tackle the crisis of representation and participation facing many American communities.
In Philadelphia, the fifth-largest city in the United States and one long strained by racial and class tensions, new thinking about civic engagement, trust, and participation has taken the form of a massive investment of philanthropic and public resources into the city’s neglected public spaces and civic infrastructure, including recreation centers and libraries. Can these investments, if designed to draw in residents and engage them in local decisions, help rebuild the bonds of community and democratic trust? This is a question relevant to cities and towns all across the country. Philadelphia’s experience may provide some answers.