For the second time in our married life, my wife and I bought a house. Strange as it may be, one component of that stressful experience led me to an epiphany about how to increase civic participation.
To qualify for a loan, the bank needs to check your credit score. Every one of us has a credit score. It essentially tells the story of your past financial behavior. Pay your bills on time, and your score goes higher. Apply for a bunch of credit cards, and your score goes lower. You all know the drill here. And a better credit score has real-world financial ramifications. Your interest rate on a new car loan or home loan is lower.
Here’s the epiphany: What if we each had not just a credit score, but a civic score?
There’s a maxim (often misinterpreted) by Peter Drucker, “What gets measured, gets managed.” In the case of civic participation, we don’t measure it. And without a measuring stick, truly improving and fostering greater participation is very difficult.
I’ll admit at the outset that there are certainly operational challenges, but let’s save those until the end and focus on what a civic score might look like.
What factors might affect a person’s civic score? One’s score could be improved by actions such as:
- Registering to vote
- Voting in a general election, whether it was for President of the United States or for local water board—the system might even incentivize votes in non-Presidential contests to encourage more active participation in what are currently lower-turnout elections like those for city council or school board
- Volunteering in the community or on a political campaign, advocacy group, or at a polling station
- Serving in a national service corps like AmeriCorps or SeniorCorps
- Obtaining and using a public library card
- Donating blood or registering as an organ donor
I’m sure this is just a partial list. I did leave off donating to charity, however, since the tax code already incentivizes that behavior. On the other hand, your civic score could be damaged by failing to vote in multiple elections in a row, postponing jury duty multiple times, or truly disengaged, sustained, or civically poisonous behaviors.
But why would anyone care about a civic score in the first place?
Perhaps voters demand candidates demonstrate and disclose their civic score (though one would think voters would demand candidates disclose their tax returns, too…). Perhaps localities could offer variable charges on “public” goods that require some element of fee support or reduce fines for certain violations (like parking tickets) based on a civic score threshold. Perhaps schools and colleges could determine ways to incentivize students to improve their civic score and in so doing, be able to teach both civic responsibility and offer a gateway to lessons on financial responsibility. These are just a few possibilities.
The greatest challenge, perhaps, is the specter of “big brother.” We would need to carefully determine how one’s behavior was recorded and where that data was secured. Yet, this barrier may not be as insurmountable as it seems on first blush. The volunteers at polling stations already ask for your name and record that you received a ballot. The state maintains a voter registration file already. Many volunteer groups keep track of their volunteers, if only because they want to encourage you to come back.
Such a plan actually could have especially strong effects on politics and volunteerism at the local level, a place where many communities sorely need more citizen engagement.
To return to the Drucker quote, one criticism has often been that the quote causes too many leaders to focus only on what can be measured, to the detriment of essential and valuable behaviors that cannot be easily quantified. While a civic score of this nature could indeed be useful, there are also many pieces of informed civic democracy that are difficult or impossible to count: how well do you pay attention to reasoned and fact-based sources of information on current events and how often do you gain exposure to viewpoints that challenge your own, for instance. Likewise, there are value-judgements that must be avoided about who you volunteered for, voted for, etc. Thus, a civic score would still be only one tool to use, alongside our judgement and ongoing, thankless efforts by journalists, activists, and others to improve civic participation in our democracy.
Nonetheless, those efforts would be greatly complemented by a civic engagement analogue to our credit score and foster a more perfect union.