Monday, October 8, 2007

Citizen-Centered Work is the New Civic Core, Says New National Report


The citizen-centered concept has been rightfully bemoaned as somewhat elusive, naunced, and difficult to convey in two-second sound bites. (But, not everything can be.... It's like pornography; we know it when we see it.) Thus, it's been relatively difficult to measure or even include in studies about civic engagement, at least in rigorous ways.

Happily, that's changed, thanks to the National Conference on Citizenship, which included several new questions that get at the concept in its annual survey, America's Civic Health Index. This year, in addition to documenting the degree to which people vote, volunteer, and keep up with the news, the Index asked whether and how people are working in their communities to learn about public issues and then, together, address them--a component of civic engagement that's been relatively overlooked in scholarly studies.

And guess what? There are approximately 36 million of these folks out there, according to the study, who comprise what the Index calls a "new civic core":

We find that although most Americans are not deeply involved in civic, community, or political affairs, there is a group of about 15 percent—roughly 36 million people—who participate in impressive ways and stand out as civic leaders. They are well informed, attend public meetings, work together on community problems, are leaders in clubs and associations, attend religious services, vote and volunteer. An overlapping group of about 24 percent of the American population uses online technology quite heavily for civic purposes. These active, well-informed citizens are fairly diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, and political ideology. We want to draw attention to the millions of civic leaders because they deserve recognition and support—and it may be possible to increase their numbers.

So what can be done to add to their ranks? A first step, writes Ron Fournier, in an Associated Press story about the findings, is pushing elected officials, the two parties, and those running for office to stop giving this group of Americans "short shrift" and start incorporating what they're doing into "citizen-centered" public policies and programs that encourage these efforts. And candidates and policyamkers should talk more about this work publicly. What better way to encourage more people to "get involved" than to show how it's happening in communities all across this country? And to emphasize that it's getting results, not only in improving the places where people live and work but in creating more vibrant civic cultures where participation becomes part and parcel of everyday life?

It's not hard to imagine that they'll have a receptive audience, since most people "crave a greater sense of community," and are "ready to ask to do something for the common good," according to the report. And, to top it off, there's a new generation of young Americans, ages 18-25, who are showing signs of being as civic-minded as the "so-called Greatest Generation," Fournier notes.

Auspicious news, indeed, but democracy shouldn't be the responsibility of only 15 percent of the our population. Getting to 100 percent should be the goal, but it can only start with more attention to and support for the 36 million people who are leading the way. Let's hope it happens soon.

2 comments:

Vince Meldrum said...

Cindy,

Thanks for the post. Somehow I had missed this report -- I guess I need to get out more.

I loved hearing about the civic core. The topic that interests me and seems to be left out, is what motivates this 15% to be engaged. I am willing to bet that it was a single issue that got most of these people started. At some point they were concerned about the local river where they played as a kid, or the fact that traffic on the street in front of their house was endangering their children or something else close to home. I think the key to increasing that 15% is by finding ways to connect people to the issues right in front of them.

I believe that the way to increase civic engagement is to leverage issues and organizations working on issues that are close to people's hearts. For instance, Audubon has added to their strategic vision the goal of increasing the participation of their large following in local political issues. In essence Audubon hopes to combine their environmental focus with a civic focus.

It will be interesting to see if they can mobilize their constituency to work locally. If they can it could become a template for involving other movements in the civic engagement game.

Keep up the good work.

heather cronk said...

Thanks, Cindy. I thought this was an interesting post -- I still haven't read the whole report, so I appreciate you highlighting it. I recently heard about John Edwards' government reform proposal* -- which includes the development of "Citizen Congresses" that would meet every two years (not just during general election years) to combine "local town halls with the latest technology to create true national discussions, unfiltered by interest groups."

It's an interesting proposal, and it's one of the most concrete suggestions I've heard to continue the momentum that so many folks (you included!) have created. I'm interested to see whether this spurs other candidates to make similar proposals...I hope so.

*You can see the full proposal here: http://johnedwards.com/issues/govt-reform/