My attention was recently attracted by my friend Simone Ravaioli (@psykoreactor) to an article published in 2013 by Marco Bani et Stefano De Paoli on Ideas for a new civic reputation system for the rising of digital civics: digital badges and their role in democratic process (link).
While this article contains a wealth of useful information and ideas, I would like to explore further the relationship between Open Badges and civic engagement, in particular the process of badge design, delivery and consumption.
The “civic reputation” aims to give a trace of actions performed online through digital civics, to give a shared framework to the various processes of participation and transparency. The life of a community is ￼based on mutual trust and the digital public sphere should aim at simulating the dynamics of offline participation. […]
Our position is that digital badges can constitute the kernel of a reputation system for civic initiatives fostering e-democracy. To this end a civic media badge framework could be deployed.
For Bani et De Paoli:
Digital civics platforms, in our model, are the primary issuers of digital badges.
Badges of civic engagement vs. badges for civic engagement
In the article, there is civic engagement on the one hand, and badges on the other. Badges are treated as a recognition of civic engagement, something that comes post facto (or as a possible extrinsic motivation). They are delivered by an authority who knows what civic engagement is.
The earners of those badges could be a:
Drawing a parallel with learning and assessment where we differentiate between “assessment of learning” from “assessment for learning” and “assessment as learning,” I would qualify this model as “badges of civic engagement.” What would “badges for civic engagement” and “badges as civic engagement” look like?
In order to do this, we first need to de-obfuscate the trust relationship hidden behind the “pretty picture” used to display a badge. Treating the badge as a trust relationship is the starting point for exploring “badges for civic engagement.” So the subject of our research can now move to the field of “trust and civic engagement.”
Doing a bit of research on trust and civic engagement I found an article on Inequality, Trust, and Civic Engagement by Eric M. Uslaner and Mitchell Brown (link)
This article examines why people violate rationality and take part in their communities, differentiating by types of participation, particularly political versus other, more communal types of participation. The authors argue that trust plays an important role in participation levels, but contrary to more traditional models, the causal relationship runs from trust to participation. In addition, the authors posit that trust is strongly affected by economic inequality. Using aggregated American state-level data for the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, the authors present a series of two-stage least squares models on the effects of inequality and trust on participation, controlling for other related factors. Findings indicate that inequality is the strongest determinant of trust and that trust has a greater effect on communal participation than on political participation.
As I do not have a Sage account, I will leave to the reader with an account the task of reviewing the article, but the abstract already elicits an important causal relationship between inequality trust and civic engagement. There is more literature (e.g. link) confirming that social participation does not necessary lead to increased trust.
If these findings are accurate, then issuing badges for social participation should not be the way to increase trust. It should be the other way around: increase trust (with badges) to increase participation. But the kind of badges that increase trust between each other are not the same as those delivered by an “authority” deciding whether a person or an organisation is civic enough or not.
If the objective is civic engagement, then we need to give people the power to trust, i.e. issue their own badges (or own credentials if one does not care for a “pretty picture”) and endorse those emitted by others (including self-issued badges). There is no shortcut. Having a “civic authority” delivering “civic badges” will not increase trust in each other by an iota — according to the quoted studies.
If these findings were to be falsified by other research (i.e. that participation increases trust), this would not not really matter as there is nothing wrong in empowering individuals with the power to trust — rather than simply being trusted by some “authority.”
In Political trust and civic engagement during the crisis (link), a policy brief highlighting findings of the European Quality of Life Survey (EQLS) on trust we can read the following findings:
The findings of this survey tend to reflect a vision of trust being the outcome of processes done to the citizens (providing a job and good public service) rather than with them. At no time is explored the issue of institutions trusting citizens. If I take the case of the French educational system and compare it to the Finnish one, the main difference is trust: in Finland teachers are trusted by the institutions and the public while, in France, teachers are distrusted by an inspectorate enforcing the literal application of a curriculum and syllabus centrally designed. Could one imagine a press conference where the Finnish Minister of Education tells teachers that from now on they will have to organise an everyday “dictée” (writing a text read aloud by a teacher) — with a French accent it could pass for a comedy act and make the audience laugh! It has happened in Paris last october and nobody laughed…
Eventually, evidence of civic engagement is… civic engagement. There are many badges that could be produced by the community to celebrate collective and individual engagements, set goals for the future and values for living together. We can even imagine badges as voting or petitioning mechanism (e.g. endorsing a person, an idea or a solution to an issue). The revoking mechanism of Open Badges could certainly apply beneficially to elected positions… The fear of being revoked could be more effective that the fear of loosing the next election…
Letting everybody the right to trust each other with badges might look like a big mess, but it would be a creative and inclusive one. Trust me!