A few months ago I wrote The News Gap: Rethinking the Role of Local News. I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do next and was exploring journalism as one possible option. DemocracyApps wasn’t yet even a conscious spark in my imagination, but in retrospect it’s clear that I was well on the path. It turns out that the article detailed a foundational idea for DemocracyApps, one that informs everything we do.
I wrote there about the way the stories we tell ourselves about the world don’t just color what we see, they actually determine what we believe is possible and how we see our own responsibilities. In particular, the stories that we, citizens, government or press tell ourselves about our citizens and about why and how they are willing to engage in public discourse and deliberation determine what we can actually do to engage them.
Looking around at the current landscape of civic discourse and deliberation tells me a lot about what kinds of stories are being told.
Put succinctly, if you believe that people are apathetic and unwilling to cut into their cat video budget in order to see what’s going on with their local government’s budget, then you necessarily also believe that trying to engage them is a waste of time. But if you believe, as I do, that most people think that it’s important to participate in the political process and in community conversation, but find that it’s just too overwhelming and hard, then you’ll come to different conclusions or, perhaps more importantly, different questions.
Questions like: How do we present complex information in a way that connects to what people care about? How can we engage people where they are, at the park, or on Facebook, or on their daily commute? Is there any way to go beyond public hearings, polls, and letters to the editor to learn what people think, what they want, and where they are willing to give in order to create greater overall value for the communities they live in?
I have no idea what the answers to those questions are. I am only certain that we’ll never find answers to the questions we can’t ask. As we launch DemocracyApps officially today, we dedicate ourselves to a story about our fellow citizens that allows the questions that lead to answers that open possibility rather than shutting it down.