How to Reduce Local Unemployment by Boosting Civic Engagement

Civic engagement isn't just important for citizens' voices to be heard in politics -- some states have discovered it's also the key for reducing unemployment.

The Christian Science Monitor recently ran a cover story that showed an interesting trend: communities with a dedication to volunteering, mutual aid, and cooperation often see less unemployment during downturns in the economy. In fact, the National Conference on Citizenship (NCoC) found that five measures of civic engagement -- attending meetings, helping neighbors, registering to vote, volunteering and voting -- led to reduced unemployment and improved economic resilience in communities across the U.S.

According to NCoC data, states such as Arizona, California, Alabama, Florida, and others with the lowest volunteering rates also correlated with the highest increase in unemployment. States like Alaska, Iowa, Nebraska, North Dakota, Kansas, Minnesota, and Vermont reported higher volunteering rates and also boasted the smallest unemployment increase.

The study found that economic indicators such as the size of the state's oil and gas industry, the proportion of the state's population with a high school diploma, residential mobility, and the housing bubble were not statistically significant predictors of unemployment change. Instead, activities tied to civic engagement were more likely to predict how the state weathered the recession.

This data is fascinating on many levels, and it indicates that local, state, and federal governments may need to place an increased focus on boosting civic engagement efforts if they want to cut unemployment and help communities thrive. Here are a few ways elected officials can do so:

Provide volunteering opportunities. In Ajo, a poor desert town in Arizona, copper mining closed down and left many out of work. Local contractors teamed up with a nonprofit to create a town renovation project, which helped rebuild the community and train residents with construction skills at the same time. Elected officials in any town can make a commitment to creating volunteering programs where the unemployed can learn new skills, network, and potentially connect with people who can get them full-time employment.

Use the power of technology. Government officials can use the power of the Web and mobile technology to pool citizen opinions, involve them in planning processes and get feedback on community initiatives. My company, Granicus, for example, provides a platform that allows elected officials to pool citizen ideas using an online portal and social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Discussion boards, comments, votes, and polls enable civic-minded conversations to happen from anywhere, at anytime, without using paper resources or having citizens call representatives one by one. Using this mobile platform, the city of Austin, TX has already generated 800 publicly brainstormed ideas, 50 of which are in action and 23 of which have been fully implemented. The city's unemployment rate is significantly less than the national average -- 4.3 percent compared to the country's 7.5 percent.

Organize in-person meetups. Local officials can increase social capital by holding face-to-face meetups and creating local organizations. A study by a Harvard sociologist found that a crucial factor in a neighborhood's social climate is how many organizations there are. A nonprofit group, basketball league, church, or even a barbershop -- any place where citizens can come together to talk -- makes a huge difference in encouraging mutual aid and improving people's mental health and well-being in a community suffering from unemployment.

While civic engagement itself doesn't create jobs, the link between lessened unemployment and increased civic engagement is strong. Local governments need to make a point to increase opportunities for community volunteering and other initiatives that bring people together -- and the economy will be stronger as a result.

Tom Spengler is the CEO and co-founder of Granicus, an award-winning cloud applications provider for government transparency, efficiency, and citizen participation. Connect with Tom and the Granicus team on Twitter and LinkedIn.