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ASU Lodestar Center Blog

Research Friday: Is traditional civic engagement dead?

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."

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. 

Strategy 2: Incentivize universities to produce relevant, coherent information that is accessible to local communities; create forums for public deliberation.

Strategy 3: Encourage the growing practice of face-to-face public deliberation; offer training, spaces, and neutral conveners for deliberative summits and require public officials to pay attention to their results.

Strategy 4: Develop "relational" knowledge by using new tools for mapping networks; allow everyone access to these relationships that are otherwise "monopolized by professional organizers."

Strategy 5: Build an advocacy network of concerned and diverse organizations that debates public information and knowledge.

The report concludes with additional recommendations to help reverse the deep decline of traditional civil society.

HOWEVER, also included in the July 2011 edition of CIRCLE is a report on "The Language of Youth Civic Organizations." It reports on a 2008 study of the American public by the National Conference on Citizenship that found that almost one third of the respondents did not know what the term "civic engagement" meant. Further, "despite the popularity of the phrase in education today, Millennials were the most likely (at 42%) to say they didn't know what it meant."

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Millennials were born between 1980 and the early 1990s and are now 18 – 30 years old. This is the segment of society currently investing in its education and developing public policy and leadership skills. These are those who will lead us in the next decades. And, according to the report, when using the term "civic engagement," an explanation of what it means is needed.

Rich Harwood, founder of the Harwood Institute, last year wrote that "too often 'civic engagement' is more like a badge we wear to a cocktail party or conference, where we find ourselves boasting about the extraordinary engagement process we cooked up and implemented. People and impact take a back seat. We produce events not impact." Harwood's focus is on empowering people to improve their communities. The report concludes that "focusing on civic engagement as a single term may over look other ways that goals may be expressed."

So, what is the language that attracts people to the process of civic communication that results in civic engagement? What words would better describe this essential component of an engaged and energized society, where knowledge is easily available, and many views are thoughtfully and respectfully deliberated? Does civil discourse result from civic communication and lead to civic engagement?

We'd love to hear what you think and invite you to join in this conversation.

Patricia Lewis' role as Sr. Professional-in-Residence at the Lodestar Center is to help bridge academia and practice. She has a long career as a nonprofit executive and as a "pracademic," having previously served as President and CEO of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, Executive Director of Campfire Boys and Girls in Seattle-King County, Development Director of the Childrens' Home Society of Washington State, and as the Nonprofit Professional-in-Residence at George Mason University. She has written and lectured throughout the world about various leadership and management topics for the nonprofit sector.

^ [1] "Five Strategies to Revive Civic Communication," CIRCLE, The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement, Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service, Tufts University, V.8 1.3, July 2011.
^ [2] ibid.
^ [3] "The Language of Youth Civic Organizations," CIRCLE, The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement, Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service, Tufts University, V.8 1.3, July 2011.
^ [4] Peter Simons, Institute for Ethical and Civic Engagement, Seattle Young People's Project.
^ [5] http:/
^ [6] ibid.


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