A Case Study in Civic Engagement: Bob Graham Center for Public Service

2011 Florida Civic Health Index

The desire to be politically active, informed on public policy, participate in an organization, or involved in the community is known as civic engagement. Research by Clay Shirky (2011) and John Pollock (2011) suggests social media plays a major role in this endeavor. Whether it is through organizing protests or posting political commentary, people use these tools to engage with the public at large. Interestingly enough, teens and young adults make up the largest demographic of social media users (Lenhart, Purcell, Smith, & Zickuhr, 2010). However, the majority of this population is not does not participate in civic discourse. This can be measured by looking at participation in elections. As evidenced in the Florida Civic Health Index, only 22% of Millennials voted in 2010. The state of Florida is particularly low, ranking 34th in young voter turnout (Knuckey & Collie, 2011). In an effort to encourage civic engagement among this cohort, the University of Florida and Senator Bob Graham opened the Bob Graham Center for Public Service. This essay evaluates the effectiveness of their social media implementation by looking at the Civil Debate Wall, on campus events and use of social network sites (SNS).

The Civil Debate Wall

Civil Debate Wall

Located in Pugh Hall, the Civil Debate Wall is an innovative social media tool designed to captivate the interests of the student community with regard to important issues (“The Wall: A Place for Civil Debate,” n.d.). Comprised of a series of interactive touch screens, it prompts passersby to answer various questions. Topics range from politics and education to worldviews. The answers take the form of “agree” or “disagree” but allow the responder to further explain their opinions. If the responder consents, he or she will receive a text message whenever someone else replies to that same question. Cameras mounted above the monitors take photos of responders to add a personal touch. The Civil Debate Wall also has a web component, so students off campus can participate as well. Click to view a demo of the wall in action (Local Projects, 2012). In terms of actual use, there were on average 200 responses per question.

On Campus Events

Another product of social media utilized by the Bob Graham Center is their distinguished lecture series. Though going to see a guest speaker would not typically be considered social media, many of these events are live streamed to a web-wide audience. Viewers can participate by tweeting their questions. According to David R. Colburn, the interim director of the Bob Graham Center, the speakers’ goal is to “familiarize the public and our students with the pressing issues of the day, so everything from the events that are unfolding in Syria to domestic events like the confrontation between republicans and democrats” is covered (Denardo, 2012).  An archive of all their distinguished speakers is available on their website for on-demand viewing. This is significant because video clips and sound bytes from these recordings can be taken and shared with friends via blogs or social network sites.

Social Network Sites

The third implementation of social media by the Graham Center is maintaining profiles on various social network sites. This not only allows people to interact with the organization, but it also provides a way for them to gauge their effectiveness. By looking at the number of likes, followers or subscribers, they can determine their reach. The Bob Graham Center Facebook page has 1,124 likes (“Bob Graham Center for Public Service,” 2012). People who have “liked” this page have opted-in to receive content updates. The account manager posts links to interesting articles, poll questions and event announcements. Subscribers have the opportunity to comment on these posts and share with their friends. To the Graham Center’s credit, their posts are frequent, relevant and thoughtful. However upon further analysis, the majority of likes and comments tend to come from an older audience. This calls into question the efficacy of SNS implementation. Their Twitter profile may provide additional insight. The Graham Center has 571 followers, but many of these are other organizations or older adults (“Graham Center (GrahamCenter) on Twitter,” 2012). Their tweets are more informational and less conversational in nature, which may account for the low level of engagement among Millennials. The frequency of re-tweets is low and @ replies are virtually non-existent.


On the surface, the Graham Center is doing everything right with regard to social media. They are using the technology, creating content and sharing it. Yet, there is still a struggle to get young adults involved. I think we need to take note from Marshall Maculan. If the medium is the message, then the message of social media is to be social (McLuhan, 1964). If the Graham Center wants more young adults to be active in their community, then they need to first focus on engaging them in conversation relevant to their lives. I realize this is much easier said than done, and I have tremendous respect for their efforts thus far.


Bob Graham Center for Public Service. (2012).Facebook. Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/grahamcenter

Denardo, S. (2012, May 31). David Colburn shares his goals for the Bob Graham Center at UF. WUFT-FM. Retrieved from http://www.wuft.org/news/2012/05/31/david-colburn-to-serve-as-interim-director-of-the-bob-graham-center-at-uf/

Graham Center (GrahamCenter) on Twitter. (2012). Retrieved October 31, 2012, from https://twitter.com/GrahamCenter

Knuckey, J., & Collie, T. (2011). 2011 Florida Civic Health Index: the Next Generation (p. 20). Presented at the National Conference on Citizenship. Retrieved from http://www.bobgrahamcenter.ufl.edu/sites/default/files/bobgraham-civichealth-booklet-jd-7_2.pdf

Lenhart, A., Purcell, K., Smith, A., & Zickuhr, K. (2010). Social Media & Mobile Internet Use Among Teens and Young Adults. Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Center. Retrieved from http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2010/Social-Media-and-Young-Adults.aspx

Local Projects. (2012). Great Civil Debate Wall Walk-Through. Retrieved from http://vimeo.com/35397675

McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. Retrieved from http://monoskop.org/images/4/47/McLuhan_Marshall_Understanding_Media_The_Extensions_of_Man.pdf

Pollock, J. (2011, August 23). Streetbook | How Egyptian and Tunisian Youth Hacked the Arab Spring. Retrieved October 30, 2012, from http://www.technologyreview.com/featuredstory/425137/streetbook/

Shirky, C. (2011). The Political Power of Social Media: Technology, the Public Sphere and Political Change. Foreign Affairs, 12.

The Wall: A Place for Civil Debate. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.civildebatewall.com/

4 thoughts on “A Case Study in Civic Engagement: Bob Graham Center for Public Service

  1. Hi Alison, thank you for this write up on the Graham Center’s efforts on citizen engagement. I would also mention that we are currently creating a digital civics course and a mobile application for the civil debate wall.

    Curious to learn more about your efforts and the intent and audience for this blog. Please email me directly.

    Please email me directly.
    Shelby, digital/communications director, Bob Graham Center

  2. Hey Alison, you provided some very good examples for talking about civic engagement. In China, the advertising or information walls that can be seen everywhere, but such good interactive information walls like you said in your blog are quite rare and uncommon. For instance, subway stations in Beijing are places where concentrate a good deal of pedestrian and advertising or information walls. But in fact, these ads or information walls do not attract pedestrian to pay more attention to them, and most of them are decorations. The reason is that the contents on most ads or information walls which are not changed throughout the month or year that is a tedious thing for commuters who take subway to go to work everyday. If the ads or information walls can be added some interactive elements or changed the content frequently or allowed strangers to publish individual ideas about some points, the walls would offer more values of entertainment and activities on passage for pedestrian.

    Specifically, according to the situation of Beijing subway ridding, lots of passengers who need to queue up for a long time then take one subway to go to work on daily life. At that time, if some fresh things can be provided on ads or information walls which similar to let passengers to take a look at the news, watch someone else’s messages, write a reply for strangers and participate in the activities on the walls, it should be an so interesting thing for pedestrian. Thinking this way that a crowd of people who take the subway for a day back and forth at the same location everyday will treat to see strangers reply for themselves as a mental expectation or hope. Maybe some pedestrian who leaves the personal idea in the morning will receive a reply from some strangers in the evening which enrich people’s lives and help them to dismiss boring and tired time.

  3. Fantastic post. Foreigners, starting with de Tocqueville, were usually impressed by the level of civil engagement he found in a young United States. In “Democracy in America,” de Tocqueville wrote that, because Americans had a say in their politics, they constantly talked about it. He reported huge levels of newspaper readership. In the 1850s, 75% of those white males who were eligible to vote did vote.

    As you point out, however, that this type of engagement has dropped in the previous century. (I have no idea why this is the case, but I hope people who are designing new ways of civil engagement have clear theories about the decline).

    I was interested in the types of engagement that the Great Civil Debate Wall boasts. So I went to Pugh Hall to visit it and share some thoughts.

    The first thing that struck me was how well designed it was, from the differentiation of the keypad and the keyboard depending on what kind of input it needs to the tone of the text. But perhaps the most important design element is the enormous picture of the user.

    I have to imagine that this is the Center’s way of avoiding the Greater Internet Dickwad Theory[1]. The theory states that a normal person, when given anonymity and an audience, turns into the worst person. Any public forum on the internet has to deal with this problem. The Graham Center has an audience, but it purposely does not give its users anonymity. Just this one design feature changes everything about how the Debate Wall works (I did not look into whether the online commentators also had to submit a picture).

    But good design doesn’t necessarily make people want to discuss politics. Nobody will use a beautiful road if they have nowhere to go. The Great Civil Debate Wall has a feature whereby the user gets a text if her opinion is commented upon. Suddenly, users leave the clean, well designed space of the wall and are invited to participate in an unstructured conversation. If users want to have a political debate, nothing is stopping them.

    That’s a clever mix of design and design getting out of the way.

    [1] http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/greater-internet-fuckwad-theory

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