Strategy 5 Build Civic Information Architecture that Supports Common Purpose

Improve Data on Democratic Engagement

Strategy 5
Build Civic Information Architecture that Supports Common Purpose

Recommendation 5.5

Establish and fund the Democratic Engagement Project: a new data source and clearinghouse for research that supports social and civic infrastructure. The Project would conduct a focused, large scale, systematic, and longitudinal study of individual and organizational democratic engagement, including the full integration of measurement and the evaluation of democratic engagement in digital contexts.

Read in the Report

The Problems with current data on democratic engagement

Existing data sources do not adequately capture the breadth of factors that impact democratic engagement today, especially via digital platforms.

Most existing data sources:

  • Center on forms of engagement that were the most common among privileged groups in society decades ago
  • Do not account for the impact of state- or community-level contextual variables
  • Do not have the sample size to allow municipal-level analysis.
  • Do not survey individuals below the age of eighteen. The few that do focus on adolescents generally do not follow them into adulthood.

These factors limit how well we can study how experiences in school and community contexts affect current or future political engagement. No current studies are specifically designed to understand democratic engagement—including both political and civic engagement—over time and the attitudes that support it during election and nonelection years.

A new study of democratic engagement

The Commission recommends the creation of a groundbreaking study of democratic engagement that would establish new understandings of how, when, and why people engage in democratic life. Such a study would need a collaborative source of data designed to answer big questions, which is why the Commission is recommending the creation of the Democratic Engagement Project.

In order to advance dramatically our understanding of democratic life in today’s America, the Democratic Engagement Project should:

  • Include individual- and contextual-level data
  • Be large in sample size to ensure attention to varied racial and ethnic categories and to state- and metropolitan-area analyses
  • Be consistent and flexible to enable comparison over time and adapt to change
  • Be interdisciplinary by design
  • Be open source
  • Be longitudinal
  • Be repeated annually
  • Include a panel component
  • Include digital and social media platform data
  • Be accessible to local activists and civic leaders
  • Be attentive to adolescents.

Scholars and research experts from multiple institutions should begin project scoping and development immediately, with an eye to creating a permanent home for the Project, either at a single university or a consortium of institutions. By 2026, the Democratic Engagement Project should be providing regular data on democratic engagement at the national, state, and community levels, perhaps as a regularly released index.

Example: The Center for the Future of Arizona

  

Having good data helps build democratic engagement and community resiliency. In Arizona, data is being used to measure the civic health across the state, identify areas of need, and develop strategies to increase social capital and infrastructure that support the practice of democratic citizenship.  In 2019, the Center for the Future of Arizona (CFA) launched a robust set of tools – the Arizona Progress Meters – to help measure and report on progress in eight priority areas identified by Arizonans as being critical to the future of the state:

  • Jobs
  • Education
  • Young Talent
  • Health and Well-being
  • Natural Resources
  • Infrastructure
  • Civic Participation
  • Connected Communities.

These Progress Meters are being introduced across the state as tools to frame conversations, support long-term planning efforts, provide measurable benchmarks, and support data-driven decision making.

The Civic Health Progress Meters, which track Civic Participation and Connected Communities, are informed by data collected through a partnership with the National Conference on Citizenship (NCoC). The data revealed that Arizona ranks among the bottom states on many measures of civic health, like spending time with neighbors or family and friends, helping neighbors, or working together to solve local issues. Furthermore, the civic opportunity gap is pronounced along lines of age, income, and educational attainment. 

However, Arizona’s increasingly young and diverse population creates tremendous potential for new approaches to civic renewal. One of these data-driven approaches is a statewide movement to scale Participatory Budgeting in Schools, which empowers and engages students to “learn democracy by doing” by deciding how district funds are used to improve their school communities. The process is engaging tens of thousands of students across Arizona and is creating stronger school communities, developing student voice and agency, and equipping young people to be engaged in civic and community life for the long term.

Champion

Civic Health Project and CivicLex committed to working to implement this recommendation in order to help reinvent American democracy for the 21st century.

Civic Health Project is dedicated to reducing toxic partisan polarization and enabling healthier public discourse and decision-making across our citizenry, politics, and media. Through grant making and advocacy, Civic Health Project supports initiatives that empower Americans to reject tribal partisanship and come together to solve our nation’s greatest challenges.

CivicLex is a civic education and media organization based in Fayette County, Kentucky that works to help residents understand and get involved with the issues, policies, and processes that shape where they live. 

See the full list of Our Common Purpose Champions.

In order to implement Recommendation 5.5 by 2026, the Commission proposes the following milestones to complete by year-end of:

2020

  • Announce formation of Democratic Engagement Project and convene a working group to begin project scoping and development  

2021

  • Identify partner institutions that will house the different functions of the project (perhaps through a convening of funders and an RFP) 

2024

  • Establish a quarterly index to measure behaviors and attitudes in civic life (similar to the Consumer Sentiment Index at the University of Michigan) at the national, state, and community level