I have spent the last few months traveling around the country to visit everyday Americans in their homes, shadow them at their jobs, and attend their houses of worship, in order to discern what motivates them to do things that are civic. (Findings to be released at the end of this year!)
In over 100 in-depth conversations with people in New York, San Francisco, Atlanta, Phoenix, Chicago, and Boston, I have asked participants the same question:
Can you tell me the last time you had an interaction with government?
This question stumps people. They often pause for a considerable think, and find themselves at a loss to come up with any examples.
For those who do, invariably, the answer returns: “does _____ count?”
Do the police count? Do parking tickets count? Does my health insurance count?
In essence, people are asking if they have correctly identified what government is. These are people who took public transportation earlier that day to get to work, or whose kids are completing third grade.
While the answers to other questions surface a variety of complicated trends about Americans’ relationship with civic duty – as one might expect from a country as colorful and many-minded as the United States – the responses to this one question are unitary. I find this astounding.
It would seem that Americans do not confidently know how to recognize our government in our daily lives. Out of the many services, experiences, exchanges, pressures, and opportunities we encounter in the course of a day, we cannot pick out the ones that stem from government authority and resources.
It is possible that this is a problem of the counterfactual – in other words, that so much of the business of government is preventing many small disasters that, when effectively averted, go unrecognized (think: ensuring food standards in your favorite takeout joint down the street).
Another possibility is that people – as much market actors as they are civic actors – see and value the consumer services or products they acquire when they pay for them, an event that happens multiple times per day (in the grocery store, at the movies, in the hair salon). We also “pay” for government services and experiences, but we do it in a lump sum, usually once per year, in a very painful experience wrought with the anxiety of “will I get a return or will I owe money?” The experience is not so much about gain of critical services for society, but rather about loss of hard-earned income. We are not regularly reminded that we have invested in a larger system.
These are merely initial hypotheses, however.
In my tenure as a Fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society this year, I want to answer three questions:
- Why are we Americans so poor at identifying the presence of government in our daily lives?
- What implications does this apparent blindness have?
- What might we do to make government’s role and function visible to its residents?
My bias is that government is valuable - and that things we cannot see, we do not value. I literally want to make government visible, but I know I need some data about how to best pursue this goal.
My thinking right now is that a solid investigation of this topic might involve three activities:
- A concerted ethnographic study would surface why we seem blind to the presence of government, and what we might do to make it familiar. This may involve shadowing participants through a day-in-the-life, conducting in-depth interviews with them, and asking them to keep diaries about their experiences. These interviews would happen in urban and rural places, red and blue places, among a diverse cross-section of experiences and backgrounds.
- Parallel quantitative studies using Google Consumer Trends and Pew Research Center datasets, for example, would validate key themes from this research, and offer a sense of what beliefs and attitudes are representative across the country.
- Finally, a multi-media #ThisIsOurGovernment campaign would turn knowledge into action, showcasing the people and activities that make up government every single day. I envision a short documentary of human stories, striking visuals, and surprising reveals - but our data may suggest that another approach would be more impactful.
If this project is successful, we will have collected some useful answers to this conundrum, and begun to transform the public mindset about how embedded government is within our everyday lives. I am most personally invested in the American context, but I could envision the findings being relevant for governments globally.
Now, I am issuing a Request for Collaborators!
Perhaps you ….
….have been mulling over the same observation and want to discuss it;
… lead an organization with an institutional interest in supporting this kind of applied research and problem-solving;
… are a master storyteller looking to help unpack and explain this phenomenon; or
… are an everyday American who wants to let me shadow your daily experiences.
If so, please contact me as follows — and thanks!
firstname.lastname@example.org || @katekrontiris