In Conversation with Matt Leighninger
Each month, PlaceSpeak presents a Q&A with experts in public engagement and civic technology. This month, we spoke with Matt Leighninger, Director, Center for Democracy Innovation at the National Civic League.
Matt is a leader in the field of democracy and civic engagement, having authored or co-authored books like The Next Form of Democracy, and Public Participation for 21st Century Democracy, and worked with organizations like Everyday Democracy, Public Agenda and the National Conference on Citizenship.
Matt has leveraged his many years of working with communities and other thought leaders to bring innovations to the field of civic engagement and equitable governance and will continue to lead in this direction. Some of the areas to be explored by the Center are civic measurement, civic tech and the use of social media, mapping democracy organizations, partnerships with academia, international innovation, the role of Congress in fostering democracy nationally and civic applications of artificial intelligence.
PS: As Director of the Centre for Democracy Innovation, what do you see as the most significant new developments in 2023?
ML: Several recent waves of innovation have carried citizens, communities, and institutions to our current position: a point where we have to make some significant decisions about how we want to govern our communities and country. And we have to face them now, before the next wave of innovation and complexity makes those decisions even more difficult.
PS: Can you share your high level thoughts on the state of civic engagement today?
ML: Most of the dangers and opportunities we face have to do with the growing sophistication of “subconscious technologies,” that use various forms of Artificial Intelligence to crunch huge amounts of data, and the increasing determination among citizens to make their actions and opinions matter in public life. You could call this impulse “conscious engagement.” These two forces are rampant, and the official formats for engagement just aren’t capable of dealing with either of them. There are many democracy innovations that are, ranging from citizen assemblies to participatory budgeting to texting-enabled engagement to platforms that aggregate data and allow users to craft policy compromises, but the innovators that drive these ideas are diffuse and disconnected – they are all over the world, working in many different fields and on many different issues.
PS: BN2 – Better Neighbours, Better Neighbourhoods is one of your latest initiatives. Why do you think it’s important to engage at the hyper-local level? What are the challenges?
ML: Hyperlocal online spaces have proliferated dramatically in the last ten years – it is a huge shift, and one that isn’t getting enough attention. The intersection of the geographic world and the digital world is where you see the intersection between the most immediate interests for most people and the most powerful means they have to act on them. Digitally linked neighbors have incredible capacity to mobilize, aggregate ideas, and influence officials, and they’ve barely begun scratching the surface of that potential. Hyperlocal spaces have also been arenas where a lot of damage has been done – racial profiling, uncivil behavior, and so on. BN2 is intended to limit the negatives and explore the positives of this trend.
PS: Do you see a challenge to democracy at the neighbourhood level, with residents demonized as NIMBYs and discouraged from community participation?
ML: Yes, and some of this happens digitally on hyperlocal platforms. One answer is to weave together in-person and online participation – they have different strengths and complement one another well. Another is to do a much better job of recruitment, so that you have a much larger, more diverse set of people participating in these spaces.
PS: Zeroing in on civic tech and the use of social media in citizen engagement, what do you see as the most significant challenges and opportunities?
ML: We need to both improve these spaces – make them more civil, efficient, equitable, and effective – and attract people to them. It is easiest to improve them by starting from scratch, but easiest to attract participants by working within the platforms that already exist. We have to find a balance between the two – allowing new things to grow in the shadow of big social media platforms, while encouraging innovation and improvement by users of the big platforms and the people who work for them.