- Social Media
- Active Citizenship
- Good Giving
- Corporate Responsibility
- Be Fearless
Citizens at the Center: A New Approach to Civic Engagement
Getting citizens more involved in the civic life and health of their communities must begin with citizens themselves, according to Citizens at the Center: A New Approach to Civic Engagement, written by Dr. Cynthia Gibson and commissioned by the Case Foundation. Based on interviews with researchers and experts in service/civic engagement, politics, and marketing, the paper offers specific recommendations for giving citizens the tools they need to identify problems and develop solutions -- and warns against top-down solutions that require people to "plug into" existing programs or campaigns.
Many Americans have turned away from politics and political institutions for the same reasons they have turned away from other civic institutions -- a sense that what they do matters little when it comes to the civic life and health of their communities or the country. Shifting to an approach that puts citizens at the center can be a powerful way to help ordinary people take action on the problems that are most important to them, and in the ways they choose.
Recommendations To develop and adopt citizen-centered approaches, the service and civic engagement field should:
- Shift the focus. Instead of asking how to encourage civic engagement, consider the best ways to give people opportunities to define and solve problems themselves.
- Start young. Don't wait till high school to begin developing the basic skills that young people will need to be effective problem-solvers.
- Involve all community institutions. Engage faith-based organizations, schools, businesses, and government agencies in providing public deliberation and problem-solving for all citizens.
- Use technology to create a new kind of "public commons." Leverage technology's power to encourage, facilitate, and increase citizen-centered dialogue, deliberation, organizing, and action around a wide variety of issues.
- Explore and create new mechanisms. Don't assume that traditional venues like town hall meetings are sufficient to truly get different types of people to engage and share perspectives. Look at where people are already interacting (such as neighborhood organizations, schools, and workplaces) and consider other approaches, structures, and venues.
- Conduct rigorous research about what works and why. While considerable research has been conducted on the levels of volunteering, voting, community service, and political participation, there is a need for more evaluation about the motivating forces behind such behaviors -- and what approaches are effectively solving community problems.
- Encourage more funding for these approaches. Many funders may be reluctant to support long-term, local efforts, preferring to support bigger initiatives with a more immediate "payoff." Attracting more funding will require demonstrating the concrete results of local deliberation and action.
- Help communities move from deliberation to action. Deliberation should serve as a means to the end of communities being able to take action collectively in ways that reap results they can see and experience.
What Do Citizen-Centered Approaches Look Like?
- They focus primarily on culture change, rather than short-term outcomes, issues, or victories.
- They provide opportunities for people to form and promote their own decisions, build capacities for self-government, and promote open-ended civic processes.
- They are pluralistic and nonpartisan.
- They help to transcend ideological silos.
- They get beyond the debate over whether service or political action is more important.
- They're not just about talking.
- They do not replace politics or other democratic processes.
John Dedrick, Kettering Foundation: "Citizens at the Center develops a critical synthesis of an emergent approach to understanding and acting in the context of democratic politics. Cindy Gibson has made another vital contribution to the field!"
Jayne Cravens, Coyote Communications: It was nice to read an affirmation of so much of what was said and profiled at the NetSquared Conference back in May.
What I would like to see in this and other similar efforts is an acknowledgement that the American work week is more prohibitive than ever to allow people to volunteer or be otherwise involved in civic activities. It's to the point that a sizeable percentage of Americans don't even take their tiny two-week vacations, or if they do, work the entire time via their laptops and Blackberries. IMO, there is no more time to volunteer or to be engaged in the community; there must be a serious re-thinking of what the American work week should look like in order to create time for people to again be involved in their communities.
Another thing I would like to see highlighted is the frustration I am hearing again and again from people who want to volunteer or to be a political activist: When they look for information about a particular local organization, particularly traditional local political groups, they cannot find the information needed online. No website, or a website that just says "information coming soon." Or, worse, they email organizations for more information, with questions, with an expression of interest in being involved, etc., and they receive no reply, or a "We'll get back to you!" message that's never followed up. It's 2006! How can tiny new all-volunteer nonprofits be doing such a great job online while established, traditional organizations are still thinking about maybe doing something online at some point?
On the flip side, if an organization goes to a corporate funder and says they want funding for a full-time volunteer manager, for technology, or for staff training to better use technology, the corporate funder balks. "We want our money to go to program, not to administration," they cry. Therefore, organizations are, in many ways, set up for failure when it comes to responding to the new wave of community engagement outlined in this paper.
Matt Leighninger, Executive Director, Deliberative Democracy Consortium: Citizens at the Center is a breakthrough because it challenges some of the predominant assumptions held by national civic thinkers and experts. Gibson questions the kind of civic work that starts out with an abstract model of what citizens ought to be (voters, volunteers, etc.), and then tries various ways of convincing, recruiting, or training people to fulfill those valuable but limited roles.
I think these kinds of projects can be beneficial, but they are not driving the current tectonic shift in democracy. The real catalysts for change are the political breakdowns that have frustrated citizens and public officials -- bankrupt city governments, instances of police misconduct, and angry debates over school closures, landfills, or housing developments. These are symptoms of a changed citizen-government dynamic: Citizens are better at governing, and worse at being governed, than ever before.
All kinds of public leaders, including mayors, school superintendents, and neighborhood organizers (and increasingly, state and federal officials as well), are reacting to this trend by experimenting with citizen-centered approaches. Some of these projects are successful, some aren't -- and even the most successful examples raise interesting new questions and challenges. Citizen-centered projects are proliferating much faster than most of us realize -- Gibson's bulleted list is but the tip of the iceberg -- and they are moving forward without a high degree of attention, evaluation, or support from national civic organizations, foundations, or other observers. We have been looking off into the distance at remote civic archetypes; Citizens at the Center helps us refocus on a phenomenon that is suddenly right in front of us.
Lisa Frank, Youth Innovation Fund, National Service-Learning Partnership: As one of the many young people involved with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation Youth Innovation Fund (mentioned in the report and in comments by Kenny Holdsman), I second the idea that giving youth the opportunity to take control of civic action and service-learning projects is essential. Since we (the Portland, Ore., Youth Innovation Fund) had a youth-led board that did its own research, wrote requests for proposals, and had the final say in giving mini-grants to other youth-led service-learning projects, we were able to involve the key components of quality service-learning -- learning, community impact, youth leadership, and reflection. We were able to watch each other and ourselves grow more confident, more concerned with education, and ultimately better citizens. By beginning civics-related education at a young age and making all teaching hands-on with results youth can see and be proud of, the next generations will be prepared for a life of dedication to their school work, community, and country. It is important to let young people experience these types of civic action to open their eyes to the field of service-learning, which is shown to be one of the best ways to improve civic engagement in youth. Once you are involved in one service-learning project, you become aware of what others are doing in your city and country and are motivated to implement more positive permanent change, setting the example for those who come after you. It is this method that will lead to the day when it is commonplace for young people to be respected as intelligent, active citizens.
Will Friedman, Executive Director, and Alison Kadlec, Associate Director, Center for Advances in Public Engagement at Public Agenda: Like most of the respondents in this space, and along with our colleagues at Public Agenda, we are heartened by Cynthia Gibson's analysis and argument for a citizen-centered approach to civic engagement. Her essay provides a cogent overview of critical issues, challenging practitioners, theorists and funders alike to think about democratic citizenship in fresh ways. We'd like to offer reflections on a few key points.
First, rather than pitting culture change against "short-term outcomes, issues, or victories," we suggest that we ask instead how citizens can pursue tangible progress on concrete problems facing their communities in ways that create, rather than obstruct, democratic habits and culture. People come to the democratic table to address common concerns and move ahead on common projects, not as a response to abstract calls for a more democratic culture. But how the approach to such problems and projects are structured and pursued (as Gibson makes clear) makes all the difference as to whether people are encouraged to become passive consumers or enabled to become active citizens. (For those who might be interested, this theme is developed in our recent article, "Deliberative Democracy and the Problem of Power.")
Second, while it is critically important to liberate the concept and practice of civic engagement from volunteering and voting alone, as Gibson does, we would add that it is also useful to think through the potential relationship between the personal and individualistic acts of voting/volunteering and the inherently social and public character of citizen-centered problem-solving. At the heart of the latter is the work of citizens deliberating together, in full recognition of their differences, about the shared consequences of public decisions. It is this which makes civic engagement a critical engine for democratic culture change in ways that the personal choices to vote or volunteer, which require no consultation beyond our own preferences, do not.
Moreover, and to the present point, deliberative civic engagement is what makes voting and volunteering most meaningfully democratic, transforming them from purely individual acts and weaving them into the public fabric of a vital and expanding democratic culture. As a practical example of how this can look, during the '04 election cycle Public Agenda ran a campaign called "First Choice: Know What You Want Before You Decide Who You Want." The idea was to provide citizens with tools to deliberate with others about issues they cared about so they could better decide for themselves who they wanted to vote for.
Citizen-centered civic engagement of this type aims to enrich and deepen the democratic meaning of voting by embedding it in a larger process of public dialogue and deliberation. The same holds true for volunteering; when it is the outcome of public conversation rather than a substitute for it, volunteering is an expression of a shared and deepening understanding of public life and how to be of service within it.
Finally, we'd like to expand on Gibson's exhortation to "conduct rigorous research" on citizen-centered civic engagement in American life by suggesting that such research include serious attention to the obstacles to deliberative engagement that proliferate in our political culture today, as well as emerging opportunities to overcome these obstacles. For example:
- What are the forces and habits that breed and reinforce the hostile, polarizing rhetoric that characterizes most of what passes for "public discourse" today, and what is the impact of those forces and habits on citizens' capacity for and willingness to engage in dialogue across boundaries?
- Are citizens tiring of today's degraded public rhetoric -- as seems to us to be the case -- and if so, how can citizen-centered strategies take advantage of this discontent?
- In a society encumbered by deep-seated inequality, what conditions are required for the creation of genuinely inclusive opportunities for civic engagement for those individuals and groups that are least likely to be included and most likely to be cynical about public dialogue and participation?
- How can such attributes of the Internet as enhanced access to information and rapid networking be used to offset societal inequalities and generally, to empower citizens and enable dialogue across boundaries, rather than to increase existing tendencies toward segmentation and polarization?
- How do different choices in the design and facilitation of citizen-centered engagement impact participation, and which choices are most likely to foster ongoing commitment to collaboration and problem-solving among citizens?
- Under what conditions and through what strategies is citizen-centered civic engagement likely to lead to broader impact and foster change, and how can we gauge different sorts of impacts over time? This last item means to reinforce Hal Saunder's call for a better articulated theory of change. If the civic engagement field is to fulfill the promise so richly suggested by Gibson's essay, such a conceptualization will be a critical step.
Ami Dar, Executive Director, Action Without Borders -- Idealist.org: I just read Cindy's paper, and I agree with every word. People all over the world want to get involved in their communities, but before jumping in, they want to know that their drop in the bucket will be joined by others, and that their actions will truly have an impact. Otherwise, why bother? This has always been true, but I believe that we are now living through a special moment in history: all over the world there are people who share similar dreams and challenges, and these people -- all of us -- can now connect and communicate like never before. The challenge now is to connect all these dots, and launch a global network of people and organizations who want to change the world by creating opportunities for action and collaboration for everyone. At Idealist, we have been working on this for the past few years, and later this month, on October 16, we'll be launching a new version of Idealist.org that will invite people everywhere to start building this network. Visit us then, and thanks again Cindy for this wonderful paper.
Ruth Wooden, President, Public Agenda: I would like to look further at the issue of making certain that dialogue and engagement with citizens is authentic, and not an exercise to overly structure or control the conversation to try to get to a "desired point of view." Too many so-called "citizen feedback" events are designed to sell a position, and the organizers are working more on marketing or "getting the right message" than in keeping the engagement totally open to citizen viewpoints. There's a real "learning deficit" operating in these situations, to use Alison Fine's term from her new book Momentum, and in fact, these dialogues are public relations exercises more than a true citizen engagements.
Given that the current political environment is so polarized (which is well described as a big part of the problem in Dr. Gibson's report), there's a tendency today for everyone (including nonprofits) to operate in "advocacy" mode, but it's not appropriate or helpful to look at public engagement as an advocacy tool. There may be useful findings that emerge for advocacy and messaging, but that's not the purpose of citizen-centered engagement.
Harold H. Saunders, President, International Institute for Sustained Dialogue: I strongly endorse the direction of Cynthia Gibson's paper on "citizen-centered approaches to citizen engagement." I would like to take a step further by developing explicitly two critical points to which she alludes tangentially in her paper. She rightly speaks of civic engagement as an open-ended civic process -- not just an act, a tactic, or a practice. She speaks of citizens coming together, deliberating, and acting collectively. Although she appropriately sets our sights on culture change rather than on short term outcomes, at the same time she quotes a warning: "If people are just engaged in process and not results, it's an empty promise." Two points:
First, if rather than short-term outcomes, culture change is the objective, we need a rigorous strategy or theory of change deeply rooted in experience. If we are going to focus on citizen-centered approaches, we must understand in depth how they work, how to teach them, and how to conduct them to produce fundamental change.
A theory of change must analyze:
- what brings citizens together;
- what causes them to see themselves as political actors;
- how they select an instrument for change and learn how to use it;
- how a change process transforms relationships that block change into relationships that can design and implement change; and
- how citizens in dialogue can design a scenario of interactive steps to engage larger numbers of citizens in actions that result in fundamental change.
To prepare citizens for such change processes, we need schools and colleges that recognize the value of rigorously designed student (citizen)-driven learning processes for probing and transforming relationships. Active citizenship is learned by acting, not in the classroom. We need foundations that value not just knowledge delivered by faculties or experts, but knowledge generated and conceptualized by students or citizens through their own interactive processes.
Second, I fully understand that citizens must feel a sense that they can produce "results," but we need to define "results" more thoughtfully than is normal. Those of us who have engaged actively in change processes in difficult conditions over time know that defining and assessing "results" is a more complex subject than is commonly recognized. More time and work are needed.
I cite Einstein's statement that thinking about problems in the same mode of thought that produced them will not lead to durable solutions. If we think about politics as what governments and politicians do, we will define "results" one way. If we define politics to include what citizens do when they come together to solve problems, we will define "results" differently.
Conventional problem-solving techniques focus on the problems - not on the underlying relationships that caused them. Changing a problem-causing relationship -- which we cannot always see -- may be a more important "result" than a "result" we can see. Citizens feel when this happens; most experts don't think about it.
Experience over more than four decades in dealing with some of the world's most intractable relationships has taught me that we must focus on problem-causing relationships in order to produce solutions- real results. Producing real results depends on defining real problems. Producing real results requires defining results in terms of a citizen-centered understanding of politics. We need time, patience, diligent work -- and new thinking about politics -- for the continuing experiments required.
In sum, focusing on citizen-centered approaches to civic engagement is an essential step. To make such approaches a reality and to produce serious change will require all of us to work together in new ways yet to be widely understood.
For more, please see "A Public Peace Process," by Harold Saunders (2001) and "A Citizen's Political Process," by Saunders, and "Dialogue for Development," by Ramon Daubonboth, in Kettering Review (spring 2004). For "A Democratic Theory of Change," see www.sustaineddialogue.org.
Ira Harkavy, Director, Center for Community Partnerships at the University of Pennsylvania: Cindy Gibson's Citizens at the Center is extraordinarily timely and significant. It directs attention to the need for a profound deepening and strengthening of civic engagement in American society. Her call for a civic renewal movement that spring from the interests, concerns, talents, and actions of citizens themselves is powerful and convincing. She also moves discussion from narrow, academic (in the pejorative sense) debates about service versus politics to the significant real-world intellectual question of how to produce sustained, significant, serious cultural change (and by implication, serious social change) that involves a shift in attitudes, values, relationships, and actions. And Gibson provides us with a way forward that includes an emphasis on youth, collaboration and institutional partnerships, and a focus on action, not just deliberation.
Needless to say, Gibson has not (nor could she have) provided us a map for increased civic engagement. Her report does, however, lead to a number of important questions. For example:
- What groups and institutions, under what circumstances, are likely to catalyze and lead a civic renewal movement?
- What could be done to encourage these groups and institutions to take actions likely to lead to a civic renewal movement?
- How can civic renewal be "institutionalized" -- that is, how can schools, colleges and universities, communities of faith, unions, businesses, and governmental agencies, etc. function as civic institutions that encourage and support citizen-centered engagement?
To put it mildly, those are very hard questions indeed. In the hope of provoking discussion (not providing anything like an adequate answer), I propose that colleges and universities are among the most strategic institutions for catalyzing a civic renewal movement. For colleges and universities to function as civic institutions, they will have to be pushed and prodded. One of the best ways to push and to prod is to support and/or hold back financial support. From here on in, we might consider supporting institutions, including higher educational institutions, on the basis of the Noah Principle: "No more prizes for predicting rain, prizes only for building the arks." In short, foundations and government might make "civic renewal" the performance standard on which to base their prizes and awards.
In my judgment, the "Noah Principle" strategy logically extends arguments advanced in Cindy Gibson's first-rate report. Regardless, Gibson is to be applauded for the contributions Citizens at the Center makes to the development of a powerful and effective approach to civic engagement.
Peter Levine, Director, CIRCLE (Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement) I think Cindy Gibson's paper is a conceptual breakthrough and a profound challenge to mainstream thinking on both right and left.
Here I'd like to respond to two important questions that Les Lenkowsky raises: First, "How engaged should we expect American citizens to be?...How do we know they aren't as engaged as they want to be right now?" Second, "Is the rise in volunteering really of small importance for civic engagement? Or is it an effective, long-term strategy?"
Our civic health is pretty bad, and the increasing rate of volunteering -- while welcome -- doesn't solve the problem. Each year in the 1970s (as shown in America's Civic Health Index) about 45 percent of Americans said that they worked with others to address community problems. That rate has dropped to about 25 percent in the current decade. Most of the decline has been among people with lower education levels, so that community problem-solving is now the preserve of college graduates. The rate of membership in associations is fairly constant, but the frequency of attending meetings has fallen. We still have organizations, but there is considerably less citizen-to-citizen discussion and problem-solving.
Why should we care? Partly because working on public problems is intrinsically valuable and dignified. Encouraging others to participate recognizes their dignity. However, most people don't buy that pair of rather idealistic arguments. They may be more persuaded by the evidence (which is quite strong) that institutions work better when many people participate.
For example, Robert Putnam has shown that American "states where citizens meet, join, vote, and trust in unusual measure boast consistently higher educational performance than states where citizens are less engaged with civic and community life." Putnam finds that such engagement is "by far" a bigger correlate of educational outcomes than is spending on education, teachers' salaries, class size, or demographics. Putnam's measures do not include explicit questions about "working together on public problems." But James Coleman's original theory of "social capital" suggests that it is a community's actual capacity to cooperate that boosts social outcomes.
Active citizens check corruption and mismanagement. They also reduce the burdens on public institutions, such as schools, by lending their own passions, ideas, and labor. Governments work better when people communicate among themselves about public problems. As Lew Friedland writes, "communities in which there are rich, cross-cutting networks of association and public discussion are more likely to formulate real problems, apply and test...solutions, learn from them, and correct them if they are flawed: in short, to rule themselves, or work democratically."
Volunteering correlates with the other forms of civic engagement and can be a strategy for getting people fully involved in their communities. However, when we specifically ask people whether they have worked with other people to address common problems, we find a low and falling rate. In CIRCLE's 2002 survey, just 20 percent of the volunteers (and 10 percent of young volunteers) described their participation as a way to address a "social or political problem."
At the recent launch of America's Civic Health Index, Bill Galston said that Hurricane Katrina demonstrated a failure of government and political leadership -- but also of civil society, because it displayed our inability (or unwillingness) to work together across differences. Nina Rees replied that the "private sector" had performed very well after Katrina, as revealed by the massive amount of philanthropy directed toward New Orleans and the Gulf. I'm with Bill, because I think there's a difference between the total amount of individual voluntary effort (also known as "the private sector") and civil society.
New Orleans is rich in groups and associations that operate within discrete neighborhoods and ethnic communities -- including the extraordinary African American mutual benefit societies. But there is, and was, a dearth of civic institutions. New Orleans had few voluntary associations that crossed community lines so that they could coordinate efforts, allocate private resources fairly, monitor the government, organize deliberations about justice, encourage citywide solidarity, and develop plans for redevelopment. In the absence of an encompassing civic infrastructure, New Orleans got bad government and ineffective or piecemeal private aid. Thus the Katrina disaster illustrates the importance of decent political leadership, but also the need for a strong civil society that goes beyond charity and volunteering. (Incidentally, Louisiana ranks 49th in volunteering.)
Jonathan F. Zaff, Ph.D., Vice President, Research & Policy Development, America's Promise - The Alliance for Youth, and Founder, 18-25 Cindy should be applauded for taking a bold stance and moving the dialogue from a traditional "service" or "civic" paradigm, to a citizen-centered focus that lays-out practical strategies for engaging all citizens in public life. Too often, service and civic strategies leverage the might of a small percentage of civic or service exemplars - these are the individuals who already know how to "plug in" to the top-down opportunities in communities throughout the country. Instead, to have a civil society and a truly representative democracy, Cindy puts forth a call for more "power to the people," laying out a strategy that meets people where they live, work, and congregate and empowers average citizens to take action to improve their communities' and country's well-being. Importantly, we cannot wait until after high school to educate and empower citizens. Just as developmental scientists recognize the need to start early for cognitive growth, we also recognize that civic skills, knowledge, and motivation are nurtured from early age. Implementing age and culturally appropriate strategies are therefore essential to this citizen-centered equation.
Linda Nguyen and Peter Goldberg, Alliance for Children and Families: This is a great paper at a critical time. The citizen-centered approach is different than the way some people/institutions have tried to support and facilitate this work. It is about creating spaces for citizens to come together and figure out for themselves what they care about and what they would like to address -- as opposed to just "plugging" them into our already existing advocacy structures or agendas.
A discussion arose at the United Neighborhood Centers of America conference around mobilizing clients on behalf of the agency's needs (needs which the agency would presume are in unison with the needs of the community). Someone asked a very good question -- if you don't have the time to facilitate processes that allow people to come together and decide for themselves how they would like to address certain problems, isn't it better than nothing that you are mobilizing them to become engaged around issues that you've (as an institution dedicated to the health and improvement of the community) identified are the pressing issues? Isn't it empowerment when you are helping those you serve see the bigger picture and invite them to take an active part in addressing it?
Presumably, Cindy would say no in response to each of these questions.
During this same discussion, a couple people agreed that it was important to identify ways to initially get people involved at a deeper level beyond the services they receive. One person posited that individuals, particularly those facing a lot of barriers, need structure to begin with. They need to engage in civic learning. Someone else asked, "OK, then at what point do you stop facilitating? When you just don't have time anymore, or when you sense that they can do it on their own? Either way, it is the institution's decision, isn't it?"
Some of this is about thinking about how we talk about this work. We should consider using more terminology like "support" and "encouragement," rather than "guidance" or "mobilization." We have a lot of work ahead of us in encouraging institutions to support citizen-centered approaches. Cindy Gibson's paper definitely helps us think more critically about the careful and deep work that needs to occur in order to reach fundamental, long term change.
Carmen Sirianni, Professor of Sociology and Public Policy, Brandeis University: Citizens at the Center makes a vital contribution to the debate on the state of our democracy because it poses questions that go deeper than indicators of volunteering or voting and focuses on developing a cultural ethos of engagement, along with the skills and organizational capacities for public problem solving that citizens require to be effective in today's world. It draws not only upon scholarly research, but also from interviews among those across the political spectrum who can see beyond partisan labels in their efforts to bring genuine civic conversation and collaborative work to the public arena. Despite many indicators that our civic life is in trouble, there are also many innovative forms of engagement that have emerged in recent years, as well as promising policy designs that can support rather than undermine robust civic work.
Citizens at the Center further reinforces the case that we must deepen civic innovation, move beyond ideological silos, and reframe the everyday work of citizenship. And it recognizes that, in order to compete against all the forces that tend to erode self-government in contemporary society, we need to build a broad and pluralistic civic renewal movement that can powerfully connect the many disparate forms of community service, collaborative problem solving, youth engagement, and community organizing -- and, yes, mix these up in new ways with all the other forms of advocacy and partisan politics that are part of a vibrant democracy. A wonderful piece that will spark some hard thinking and hopefully some news forms of collaboration across the broad civic engagement field.
Leslie Lenkowsky, Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University: Cynthia Gibson has done a good job of recounting the state of thinking about civic engagement. But she has not addressed -- perhaps because it was not her task to do so -- a number of big questions that those who wish to see this discussion move forward need to face. Namely:
1. What is the relationship between the various strategies suggested in the second part of the paper and the problems -- ranging from low voter turnout to loneliness -- cited in the front part? Why should we assume that a more engaged populace will be a more satisfied one?
2. Will greater civic engagement really produce consensus on the "common good"? Does that assume there is more agreement on the "common good" than really exists among the American people? Does it diminish the importance of real differences of opinion on public matters? And what is the "common good" anyway?
3. How engaged should we expect American citizens to be? And if we can't say for sure, how do we know they aren't as engaged as they want to be right now? Is the association of civic engagement efforts with the supposed need to achieve change helpful or harmful, if Americans are reluctant to become more active in addressing their current dissatisfactions?
4. Since there is plenty of data to indicate that people who volunteer are more likely to vote, read, etc., is the rise in volunteering really of small importance for civic engagement? Or is it an effective, long-term strategy?
5. Since some research has already indicated that the Internet may increase social isolation, are the new digital technologies really an ally of civic engagement? Or will they be a hindrance? Are Wikipedia (and blogs) likely to enhance civic knowledge? Or are they likely to contribute further to the ignorance of or confusion about American history and government that's already widespread among the public? Should more effort be placed on civic knowledge-building efforts, rather than fostering new types of civic participation?
Marnie Webb, Vice President for Knowledge Services, CompuMentor: In our current work, and especially in work with public libraries supported by the Gates Foundation, we are trying to model deploying technology to generate the kind of civic engagement Dr. Gibson advocates. And we hope to push this even further -- by working with partners like CivicSpace Labs to develop the toolsets -- the commons -- that the paper discusses.
As always, there is a gap between saying "This is what should be done" and actually doing it. One of our ideas is to create a very concrete guide to using new technologies to promote citizen-centered engagement. It could be progressive -- "here's an easy way to start out" -- and then build to more complex things.
Often, I think, we implicitly encourage folks jumping in on the deep end of building technology solutions. It's tempting to read the paper and start imagining the comprehensive wiki or Drupal or Plone platform that can help encourage the kind of engagement talked about. But, short of creating new platforms, it is possible to utilize the vast amount of content already out there -- blog posts, shared photos, Wikipedia entries -- to get at some of things talked about. It seems important to identify and promulgate the small, immediate ways that passionate people can deploy existing technology to move this agenda forward. It would be great to do a fully featured how-to to help move this agenda.
Liz Hollander, Executive Director, Campus Compact: In the early 1830s, Alexis DeToqueville characterized American democracy by saying "the duties of private citizens are not supposed to have lapsed because the state has come into action; but every one is ready, on the contrary, to guide and support it. This action of individuals, joined to that of the public authorities, frequently accomplishes what the most energetic centralized administration would be unable to do."
Gibson's paper makes a very strong case for recapturing this genius of our American democratic way of life. At Campus Compact, we have always promoted "public and community service to develop the skills and habits of citizenship" in college students but what we have learned is that the one does not necessarily lead to the other without conscious effort. Students need to join their enthusiasm for making a difference with subtle understanding of the assets in challenged communities and the work they can do to build community capacity. Students need to understand systemic causes of social and economic ills and the ways that citizens can engage in their democracy to address them.
We talk about doing the "hard work" of democracy, because true participation is not simple. As Commissioner of Planning in Chicago, I was constantly confronted with different communities within each geographic community -- homeowners, renters, preservationists, developers, champions of low-income housing , and "not in my back-yarders." The most powerful plans for neighborhood revitalization are shaped through broad citizen participation efforts in which these interests have to sit at the table together with the public authorities and seek common interest. It's messy and patient work, but as Robert Putnam puts it, "better together."
Tom Erlich, Senior Scholar, Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching: Cynthia Gibson has written an important and provocative essay on civic engagement. The message that citizen-centered participation and deliberation can work and should be encouraged is a welcome one. My colleagues and I at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching have written a book titled Educating for Democracy: Preparing Undergraduates for Political Engagement, published by Jossey-Bass. The book deals directly with how colleges and universities can promote the understanding, skills, and attitudes needed for citizen-centered engagement. It is true, as the essay indicates, that many people, especially young people, do not view public policy-making and electoral politics as arenas where they can make a difference. We argue in our book, however, that American democracy needs citizen participation in politics, broadly defined, and that institutions of higher education have both the opportunity and the obligation to educate their students to become politically engaged. We focus on 21 courses and programs at a range of different colleges and universities and analyze the goals of this education, the strategies to achieve those goals, and the ways to promote open inquiry and avoid political bias in the process.
Judy Woodruff, "NewsHour": Cindy has done terrific and important work, and I know it will be a spur to action for those who care about the health of our democracy. To confirm some of Cindy's findings, I've seen in my own conversations this summer with American young people that the more they feel their voices are listened to, the more they feel they have serious opportunities to contribute to the public dialogue, and to take responsibility for outcomes, the more likely they are to engage in the civic fabric of the nation. On the other hand, when they see public figures acting in ways that don't represent their views and values, when they feel left out of the dialogue, the more powerless they feel to impact change.
Kenny Holdsman, Academy for Educational Development: Citizens at the Center makes an important and compelling argument that in order for citizen involvement to become a catalyst for community change and civic renewal, the philosophy and strategies of citizen engagement must be altered. In sum, they must become more organic, more inclusive, and in Dr. Gibson's words, the work of civic engagement must become more "citizen-centered" and "citizen-driven."...The W.K. Kellogg Youth Innovation Fund, which is referenced in this paper, embraces the fundamental notion that youth-centered and youth-directed civic action is the most effective way to engage young citizens in the hard work of community change. The hundreds of young people who are actively involved in the Youth Fund's efforts are pursuing engagement approaches that intentionally move beyond volunteerism and charity work to more potent forms of change and justice-oriented action. The architects of the Youth Fund, based at the Kellogg Foundation and the National Service-Learning Partnership at AED, call these approaches "multiple action pathways" -- approaches such as youth in governance, youth-generated media, youth philanthropy, youth social entrepreneurship, and youth organizing. With supportive policies and structures, youth and citizen engagement can become a systemic part of the civic and political fabric of community life.
John Bridgeland, CEO, Civic Enterprises This paper "breaks the silence." For those of us who have labored on the policymaking side of these issues and are confronted with the very real question "So how do we actually help foster a culture of service and civic engagement?", this paper is a breakthrough. It moves the discussion beyond the very hopeful movements in volunteer and national service and civic education to the hope that we can do much better -- and foster a stronger ethic of civic engagement in our schools, workplaces, faith-based institutions, communities, and neighborhoods, not defined by experts or politicians or national leaders, but defined by us in local communities. To pull that off in any systemic way is the real challenge and is a challenge every generation has struggled with since our founding. Coupled with our new report, Broken Engagement: America's Civic Health Index, which serves as a wake-up call to the country that our civic stock is declining and provides a few signs of hope upon which we can build, Cindy's paper provides some specific ideas on how we might move forward. Well done!
Daniel Ben-Horin, Executive Director, CompuMentor By referring to "technologists," not "technology," we make the point that the "movers," the "agents" in this process of meaningful civic engagement, are people. These particular people (and their ranks are increasing almost exponentially) who know how to use technology are, in many cases, very open to using this technology in a civically engaged fashion, if they can but discern the opportunity. These people are fully able to communicate virtually, but, being people, they enjoy and need more visceral contact as well. So through this frame, the issue isn't "Organize via technology or organize more traditionally?" but "How do we create a pathway into the process for technologists, and once they're part of the discussion, inside and outside of organizations, how do we give them enough room and resources to make a difference?"