Local governments are in the midst of a sea change when it comes to public participation and citizen engagement. Forced by the recession and recovery of the last five years to make dramatic cuts to their budgets, they’ve reached out to try to understand better what their residents value most. Presented with a new and ever-evolving array of technological tools -- Facebook, Twitter, text messaging and public-participation sites like MindMixer, Peak Democracy and Nextdoor -- they’re using them to publicize their own concerns and, increasingly, to draw out public sentiment. They’ve discovered the “civic technology” movement, with its groups like Code for America and events like next month’s National Day of Civic Hacking, which encourage citizens with tech skills to use government data to build apps useful to residents, neighborhoods and cities.
What may be most interesting about all this, however, is that it’s occurring precisely as another momentous shift is taking place: As they go through their 30s and 40s, members of Generation X are moving into more active roles as citizens and into upper management ranks in local government. While it’s too much to say that this generational change is the force driving local governments’ more expansive view of public engagement, the blending of the two trends is no coincidence. It shouldn’t be surprising that this generation, which long ago shook off its disengaged-slacker stereotype to become known for its entrepreneurialism, DIY ethic, skepticism about bureaucracy and comfort with collaborating over far-flung networks, would now be pressing local government to think in new ways about the work of democracy.
“A lot of people in their 30s and 40s now are focused on families and schools and parks and public amenities,” says Matt Bronson, San Mateo’s assistant city manager, who at 38 falls squarely into the demographic. “They want to play a role and not just a one-time listening role. As a generation, they want to have a chance to provide ongoing feedback, and when the time and opportunity are right, to help make collaborative decisions on the direction of their communities.”