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New Thinking through New Tools and Techniques for Engagement

Anita Brown-Graham is being honored as a Champion of Change for her efforts in making government more transparent and accountable through technology.

Anita Brown-Graham

Anita Brown-Graham is being honored as a Champion of Change for her efforts in making government more transparent and accountable through technology.

In the face of serious economic and social challenges, growing national polarization continuously threatens devastating gridlock. Each day seems to bring new indications of our dysfunction at discourse.

When I joined the Institute for Emerging Issues (IEI) at North Carolina State University in 2007, I looked forward to bringing together the state’s leaders from all sectors, regions and points of view. Founded by former North Carolina Governor Jim Hunt, IEI had earned a strong reputation for its efforts to focus the state on matters important to its continued competitiveness.  The organization sought to extend North Carolina’s rich tradition of boundary-crossing leadership - a tradition credited with transforming the state’s economy and quality of life over a 50 year period.

However, there were troubling indications that North Carolina faced a civic engagement crisis.  By 2010, our state ranked 42nd in the nation for volunteering, 44th for participation in non-electoral policy activity (such as public meetings), and 39th for group affiliation/membership. Without reclaiming the ability to engage and collaborate, North Carolina was on course to lose the voices of too many of its people as leaders shaped their future.

IEI needed to respond to this crisis, but we could not act alone. We reached out for the wisdom of hundreds across the state. With their contributions of content, design support, software innovations and funding, we created the Emerging Issues Commons - a first of its kind engagement tool - both a physical space and an online hub that is today transforming how citizens across the state connect with each other, access information, and take collaborative action on important issues.

The citizens of the state asked us to replace charts and graphs with interactive tools that visualize more than 100 county-level data points on the economy, education, health and the environment. They told us they wanted to see the connections among challenges, be able to compare challenges across different geographies, and to have data curated in ways that offered greater insight into the issues. 

Our citizen advisors wanted also to have big challenges humanized through short videos, and to be able to add their own ideas for solving challenges. They asked that others be able to rate and rank ideas and add opinions on how to make them stronger. Finally, they insisted that the Commons content be available online 24/7.

Despite indications of permanent disengagement, North Carolinians made clear that they would participate at higher levels if given an opportunity for meaningful engagement and resources to support their efforts.  What they needed? New thinking through new tools and techniques for engagement.

Anita Brown-Graham is Director of the Institute for Emerging Issues (IEI) at NC State University