Active citizenship refers to a philosophy espoused by organizations and educational institutions which advocates that members of charitable organizations, companies or nation-states have certain roles and responsibilities to society and the environment, although those members may not have specific governing roles.
Active citizenship can be seen as an articulation of the debate over rights versus responsibilities. If a body gives rights to the people under its remit, then those same people might have certain responsibilities to uphold. This would be most obvious at a country or nation-state level, but could also be of wider scope, such as the Internet (Netizen) or Earth (global citizenship). The implication is that an active citizen is one who fulfills both their rights and responsibilities in a balanced way.
A problem with this concept is that although rights are often written down as part of law, responsibilities are not as well defined, and there may be disagreements amongst the citizens as to what the responsibilities are. For example, in the United Kingdom, citizens have the right to free health care, but voting in elections is not compulsory, even though many people would define this as a responsibility.
Writing a clear definition of responsibilities for an active citizen is much more problematic than writing a list of rights. For example, although voting might be considered a basic responsibility by many people, there are some who through disability or other issues are not able to participate fully in the voting process.
An active citizen is someone who takes a role in the community; the term has been identified with volunteering by writers such as Jonathan Tisch, who wrote in the Huffington Post in 2010 advocating that busy Americans should try to help others, particularly by offering high-level professional expertise in such areas as banking, education, engineering, and technology to help the less fortunate.
Active citizenship is considered a buzzword by some due to its vague definition. Examples include volunteering, donating, and recycling.
Examples of active citizenship in education
Due to concerns over such things as a lack of interest in elections (reflected by low voter turnout), the British Government launched a citizenship education programme several years ago. Citizenship education is now compulsory in UK schools up to 14 and is often available as an option beyond that age.
In Scotland, UK, active citizenship has been one of the three major themes of community policy since The Osler Report (section 6.6) in 1998. The Scottish Government's 2009 guidelines for Community learning and development, Working and Learning Together, has active citizenship as a target within other policy aims. Britain has a points-based immigration system, and in 2009 was considering a probationary period for newly admitted immigrants which would examine, in part, how well they were being so-called active citizens.
In Canada, there is an Active Citizenship Course being run at Mohawk College in Hamilton, Ontario. It is a compulsory course that is delivered by the Language Studies Department to all students at the college.
Organizations that cite active citizenship as part of their mission or vision statement include the following:
- Shimer College
- Omidyar Network
- Active Citizenship Network
- Midwest Active Citizenship Initiative (MACI)
- Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service
- Active Citizenship Office (Department of the Taoiseach, Ireland)
- Time for Citizenship, a primary school project
- Stichting Actief Burgerschap University of Amsterdam
- Theodor-Heuss-Kolleg, CEE/SOE
- Alternative Spring Break
- Junior Chamber International
- The European Youth Parliament 
In the United States, writer Catherine Crier wondered in the Huffington Post about whether Americans had lost sight of Thomas Jefferson's sense of active citizenship. Crier lamented how Americans have tended to neglect participating in voluntary associations, and tend to live as "strangers apart from the rest", quoting Tocqueville. In contrast, writer Eboo Patel in Newsweek suggested that president Obama had a somewhat different sense of active citizenship, meaning strong families, a vibrant civic center in which persons of different faiths and secular backgrounds work together, with government acting as a "catalyst."
Jose Antonio Vargas writes in his memoirs, Dear America: Notes from an Undocumented Citizen, that undocumented immigrants, who contribute to the cultural, social, and economic fabrics of their adopted countries, are and ought to be considered citizens of those countries, notwithstanding what immigration authorities call them. He calls this a citizenship of participation.
Notes and references
- Jonathan Tisch (April 27, 2010). "Active Citizenship: A New Approach to Volunteering". Huffington Post. Retrieved 2010-06-16.
I introduced Citizen You, the movement I've spearheaded to encourage Americans to utilize their professional skills to help others. This new kind of volunteering, which has come to be known as "active citizenship," is a fresh, innovative solution to an old problem: Countless busy Americans would love to help others, but simply don't have the time to figure out the perfect way to be useful. What could be more useful than applying high-level professional expertise -- in banking, law, education, engineering, technology, and other fields -- toward problems faced by those who are less fortunate?
- Gaëlle Faure (Aug 12, 2009). "British Citizenship: Points Off for Protest?". Time Magazine. Retrieved 2010-06-16.
Becoming British just got trickier. Under a new government proposal announced on Aug. 3, would-be Brits may have to work a little bit harder to get their citizenship when a second test is added to the country's points-based immigration system. If the plan goes through, applicants would serve a term as "probationary citizens," winning or losing points on the path to the passport depending on how well they fit into British society. Critics have also attacked the ways points could be awarded. Some worry that the "active citizenship" fast track would coerce candidates into volunteering,
- "Curriculum in Danish". Archived from the original on 2012-10-24. Retrieved 2012-10-26.
- Junior Chamber International (JCI)
- European Youth Parliament (EYP)
- Catherine Crier (May 21, 2006). "A Degree in Citizenship". Huffington Post. Retrieved 2010-06-16.
Alexis de Tocqueville, described our challenge over a century ago in his monumental work, Democracy in America. So clearly did he see the strength of a democracy and the weakness of human character, his words might have been written today. He said, in summary, that our real power as a people came through voluntary associations. Our personal freedoms would be protected if we could voluntarily resolve the problems of society, rather than permit the heavy hand of government to do it for us. But he recognized our great weakness--the willingness to live 'as strangers apart from the rest'.... we Americans have failed to shoulder our responsibilities. The qualities of active citizenship that Jefferson ascribed to us have not been realized, nor have our appointed leaders lived up to their noble assignment.
- Eboo Patel (March 18, 2010). "The Faith Divide". Newsweek. Retrieved 2010-06-16.
Barack Obama's vision of the good society is based on the idea of strong families, a vibrant civic sector that includes groups from various faith and secular backgrounds working together, and a government that serves as a catalyst, a convener and a capacity-builder, while always respecting the line between church and state. And Barack Obama's Faith Council gives me a vision for what active citizenship in that good society can look like.
- Andy Fitch. "Citizenship of Participation: Talking to Jose Antonio Vargas". BLARB. Retrieved 2019-10-07.