civic engagement

Research Friday: Is traditional civic engagement dead?

posted by Pat Lewis,
Senior Professional
in Residence
ASU Lodestar Center

Welcome to Research Friday! As part of a continuing weekly series, each Friday we invite a nonprofit expert to highlight a research report or study and discuss how it can inform and improve day-to-day nonprofit practice. We welcome your comments and feedback.

"Citizens should seek opportunities to create and share public knowledge and discuss public issues; expect their governments to be open, transparent and collaborative; volunteer to the best of their ability; and create and share knowledge about the networks and relationships in their communities."[1]

How many times have we heard a pronouncement starting with, "Never before have we needed ____ more?" I'm not sure that never before have we needed civic engagement more, but I do suggest that reviving civic communication will contribute to healthier communities. And I could argue that such might energize a greater level of civic engagement, which could contribute to a strengthened democracy.

This thought is not original; it is outlined in a recent policy paper by Peter Levine of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts University. Levine's paper, Civic Engagement and Community Information: Five Strategies to Revive Civic Communication, commissioned by the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, was released in July 2011 and reported in CIRCLE, a publication of Tufts University.

CIRCLE's report of the paper brings to greater awareness the importance of technology and social infrastructure in civic communication. Its premise is that "Information by itself is inert. It begins to have value for a democracy when citizens turn it into knowledge and use it for public purposes." The paper further asserts that, "To create and use knowledge, individuals must be organized. Formerly, many Americans were recruited to join a civil society of voluntary membership associations, newspapers, and face-to-face meetings that provided them with information, encouraged them to discuss and debate, and taught them skills of analysis, communication, and political or civic action. That traditional civil society is in deep decline."[2] [emphasis mine]

Five recommendations for reviving civic communication are proposed in the report. To summarize:

Strategy 1: Infuse in the infrastructure of national and community service programs the requirement that participants learn civic communication skills.