“Hope springs eternal in the human breast: Man never is, but always to be blest. The soul, uneasy, and confin’d from home, Rests and expatiates in a life to come” Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man.
I believe that our society, when working in unison, can move mountains. I believe that our communities, when working together, can part the seas of discontent. And I wholeheartedly believe that when folks are connected to opportunity and their eyes are opened to their full potential, we can set this world free.
Yet even the most optimistic of folks don’t believe. They merely hope. This is the real change we need right now, for someone is more compelled to act when they believe in a better world, not just hoping for one. But is hope a luxury in today’s society? Do people have the time or the energy to go that extra mile for what they believe in when the systems they seek to change are mining their time, talent and resources for all their worth, all the while leaving them exhausted at the end of the working day? Hope for many is having food on the table, a roof over their head and job security, not engaging on the most complex and defining issues of our time.
I have lived these issues, observed this cycle of apathy and engaged in my community in some of the uniquest ways possible, because your actions no matter how little, have an astonishing ripple effect on others, on societal progress and on your personal growth.
I apply much of my work through qualitative approaches, and I have this simple post-it note on my desk that keeps me focused on what counts and what matters. I get asked often, how do you do as much as you do (especially with young kids), and the answer is enshrined on this post-it note. If it doesn’t add up then it goes in the parking lot, which helps me download my thoughts in a truly cathartic way and gives me plenty of food for thought for the future – a pipeline of civic solutions as it were that might not make sense now, but may become more relevant and applicable over time.
The post-it note has scrawled on it a simple equation (H > O + P – E) that I have adapted from a scientific paper that was written in 1968 and resuscitated in a way that really resonated with me back in 2014….
The overarching premise of my civic math is that you can’t transform our politics unless people who invest in it get a sense they can change it. Yet I always found myself stuck in translating that notion, that was until I started looking at civic engagement at a quantitative measure. I started realizing there wasn’t an app for everything and there was never a silver bullet to solve issues of civic participation.
That revelation came from reading the transcript from Anthea Watson Strong’s presentation at the Personal Democracy Forum back in 2014. Anthea was formerly the Director of Voter Experience with the Obama technology team, was part of Google’s Social Impact team and last time I checked was a product manager at Facebook. She basically had the revelation of the revelation I just adopted when she found an equation buried in a 50-year old academic paper.
She adapted it to highlight why people take action and ultimately in my case, why people will or won’t use your you beaut, awesome, on the verge of IPO, new civic engagement tool. I encourage you to read ‘The Three Levers of Civic Engagement’ which I hope has the same lasting effect on your approach to working in your community as it did with me.
I ultimately tinkered with the acronym of the original equation as I needed something easier to articulate to my peers and my community. Hope is sometimes the only thing we have for a better tomorrow so that’s why this iteration just felt right.
H > O + P – E
H = Help
H is the help, assistance or benefit a citizen as an individual will receive if the civic decision swings in their favor. As an example, if I have a pre-existing condition, the passage of the Affordable Healthcare Act would be a very real and measurable benefit to me. Or, if I had a lot of money invested in the stock market, a change to the tax code that cut capital gains tax would increase my net worth.
O = Odds
O represents the odds that an action will change the outcome of a civic decision. Or, for example, the likelihood that writing a letter to your Congressional representative will change the outcome of a floor vote.
P = Purpose
P represents the feelings of purpose, and the sense of being part of something bigger than yourself. P is the pleasure people get from wearing an “I Voted” sticker and the pride they feel by being a good citizen.
E = Expenditure
E is the time, effort and financial cost of taking a civic action.
To add some nuance to this I have borrowed the original text from Anthea’s work (she is much more articulate than I am);
“In the 2012 general election, 129 million people completed a ballot. The likelihood that your vote was going to decide the outcome of that election was so close to zero, it makes no difference. Essentially P = 0. Zero times times B equals zero. So the equation becomes 0 + D > C. As applied to the 2012 election, people didn’t vote because they thought they were going to be the deciding vote between Governor Romney and President Obama. They voted because their D, or their sense of civic duty, outweighed the C, or the cost of finding a polling place, making sure they were registered to vote, making sure they had the right ID and taking the time to go and vote.
However, at the local level, your chance of influencing a decision creeps upward. Let’s say your local city council is considering funding a dog park across the street from your house, and you own a dog. Going to a city council meeting and making a passionate argument might sway a vote. The P value is high. However, the cost of this particular civic action is also pretty high. You need to figure out that the city council is thinking about funding a dog park, identify when the city council is meeting, take time to travel to the meeting, and then (eek) public speaking! In this case, the higher P value along with the benefit to you as an individual dog owner might help you overcome the inhibitions presented by the cost of the civic action.
One of the mistakes we make as a community interested in building civic engagement tools is that we assume the old world rules no longer apply because internet = magic. But the internet isn’t magic.
Users have and will continue to act in a mostly rational way online, just as they did offline. Our users are people with lots of demands on their time, and the likelihood that their civic action will change the outcome of a civic decision is close to zero. It’s going to be hard to get them to pay attention to us.
And so, as technologists who are building the next generation of civic tools, we are left with these three levers to influence user behavior. All of our work falls into these three categories — probability, cost and duty.”
Or in the case of hope – odds, purpose & expenditures.
So how do we give more HOPE to our communities in the future?
- Decrease the expenditures – make democracy more accessible
- Increase the purpose – rebuild civil discourse
- Increase the odds – connect community members to opportunity & movement building.
Maslow’s is important not to forget here too…
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is an important foundational backdrop when understanding an individuals current capacity to engage in their communities beyond the more popular avenues such as schools, sports teams and social circles. In terms of psychological theory it seems more relevant today than in 1943 when Abraham Maslow presented his paper “A Theory of Human Motivation” in Psychological Review.
The biggest threat to power is a self-actualized society. Therefore we need a raft of concurrent policies and laws that are geared towards bringing people back to even. Getting people back to even (a life where they feel safe and secure) is a truly generational approach especially given the policies of the last century have inadvertently caused the majority of disparities we are now fighting back against. Being at ‘even’ frees individuals to seek opportunity and become all they can be. Not be anything they want, I think that’s a misguided logic, but everyone has skills and potential.
These approaches don’t have to be revolutionary in most cases, and I know this is a mass oversimplification of the problems and the intersectionality of them but what if we looked at giving people homes to tackle homelessness, and giving people money to help them move out of poverty? We are happy to pump-prime banks with stimulus funding to stake off a depression but what about the millions living in their own depressions right now? We need to invest in folks to save our future, and you know deep down that costs of action now far outweigh the costs of inaction.
I used that line specifically, as climate change is a perfect example of the cost analogy. It would have much more public support if it wasn’t for the litany of issues people face on a daily basis. There is no way a single parent working two jobs is going to have enough time to make informed decisions of the importance of tackling the most existential crisis of our time. It’s not a priority, and it’s much easier to feed misinformation through fear (think about the psychology of being safe & secure here again), than it is to explain the problem and solution in soundbites.
This theory isn’t just a hunch either…
Pew Research on top voting issues in 2016 – Economy 84% Environment 52%
Pew Research on top voting issues in 2012 – Economy 86% Environment 51%
Pew Research on top voting issues in 2004 – Economy 76% Environment 55%
Look – climate change is real. So real and scary, that I always make sure I keep this as a separate sentence.
Climate change is real (one more for good measure), but what is more real is that unless you have a job thinking about climate change is a luxury. 2008 was a real chance to pass legislation as public sentiment was at a high watermark. Sadly now the current window is closed unless we elect the right people because we are locked into this way of thinking because older voters (>65) are the largest voting block and will be for years to come…but that’s for a different conversation.
History teaches us that as economic weight shifts so does strategic weight. There is a new generation coming of age financially and professionally, and with a near $60 trillion transfer of wealth there is cause for optimism that we can do something before it’s all too late.
Hope is something that gives you a reason to engage in change.
Hope is used so often in politics that I’m surprised it’s meaning hasn’t diluted somewhat. But it can’t be us vs them. What is hope if it challenges nothing?
I road tested the hope equation at a conference back in 2019. The conversation sadly took a turn due to a Director from a large, local bio-tech firm confidently stating that “People only engage if there are pain points”. Weak excuse.
I truly believe if we get people back to even then many of the systems that keep folks from societal mobility will unravel. People will be able to make more informed decisions and most importantly personal decisions based on need, values and solutions to lived problems. We will also see the battle of ideas rather than a battle for clicks, and ultimately a better civil discourse.
Look, democracy is messy. The kids of families trying to ‘break the cycle’ go to libraries, elites jump on a private jet to Davos. I get it. I don’t agree with it, and therefore I’m compelled to act.
In the end we need to embrace the philosophy that perpetual optimism and inquisitiveness – when backed by a coalition with the winds against their backs, and ample resources – is a powerful way to make the world a better place.
It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit. We really need to move past the hysteria caused by social media trends and well financed fringe groups. The reality is that when you decide, you divide. My political days always were predicated on the notion of 50 + 1. So do what you believe is right. Pete Buttigieg summed it up best when talking about being labelled a socialist.
So why do we fight for our values or put up policy when we don’t fight for it while in office. Shifting public debate is also part of the legislative process, it can’t be just the big ticket bill to enshrine your legacy, sometimes we need to be a stalking horse and chip away at the status quo. Much of this work happens at the grassroots level so please see this not as you being called out, but being called in.
The HOPE Equation to me is the civic DNA that inspires my ideas for bold change, but set-up with that bent of pragmatism. It’s about taking a big bet on the next generation as it is those that can repair a fractured society and restore the hope that many felt for their children when born, when they boarded their flights for a new chapter or when they risked it all to rewrite their own family’s future.
93% of Americans hate how divided we have become as a county, so together let’s do something about it, let our eyes not be used simply for viewing the world at it is, may they also be able to project the world we want to see, imagining the future and de-risking our civic participations through this simple equation, one of which I hope will inspire you to see risk as a creative act and not as a win-loss scenario. Trust me, your involvement and interest in your community is always going to be a win-win.