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Civic engagement or civic participation is any individual or group activity addressing issues of public concern. Civic engagement includes communities working together or individuals working alone in both political and non-political actions to protect public values or make a change in a community. The goal of civic engagement is to address public concerns and promote the quality of the community.
Civic engagement "is a process in which people take collective action to address issues of public concern" and is "instrumental to democracy" (Checkoway & Aldana, 2012). Underrepresentation of groups in the government causes issues faced by groups such as minority, low-income, and younger groups to be overlooked or ignored. In turn, issues for higher voting groups are addressed more frequently causing more bills to be passed to fix these problems (Griffin & Newman, 2008).
Civic engagement can take many forms—from individual volunteerism, community engagement efforts, organizational involvement and government work such as electoral participation. These engagements may include directly addressing a problem through personal work, community based, or work through the institutions of representative democracy. Many individuals feel a sense personal responsibility to actively engage as a sense of obligation to their community. "Youth civic engagement" has similar aims to develop the community environment and cultivate relationships, although youth civic engagement places an emphasis on empowering youth.
A study published by the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement at Tufts University, categorized civic engagement into three categories: civic, electoral, and political voice. Scholars of youth engagement online have called for a broader interpretation of civic engagement that focuses on the purpose behind current institutions and activities and include emerging institutions and activities that achieve the same purposes. These civic engagement researchers suggest that the reduction of civic life into small sets of explicitly electoral behaviors may be insufficient to describe the full spectrum of public involvement in civic life.
|Measures of civic engagement|
|Community problem solving||Regular voting||Contacting officials|
|Regular volunteering for a non-electoral organization||Persuading others to vote||Contacting the print media|
|Active membership in a group or association||Displaying buttons, signs, stickers||Contacting the broadcast media|
|Participation in fund-raising run/walk/ride||Campaign contributions||Protesting|
|Other fund-raising for charity||Volunteering for candidate or political organizations||Email petitions|
|Run for Political office||Registering voters||Written petitions and canvassing|
Civic engagement reform arose at the beginning of the 21st century after Robert Putnam's book Bowling Alone brought to light changes in civic participation patterns. Putnam argued that despite rapid increases in higher education opportunities that may foster civic engagement, Americans were dropping out of political and organized community life. A number of studies suggested that while more youth are volunteering, fewer are voting or becoming politically engaged.
Role of volunteerism in transforming governance
The State of the World's Volunteerism Report 2015, the first global review of the power of volunteer voices to help improve the way people are governed, draws on evidence from countries as diverse as Brazil, Kenya, Lebanon and Bangladesh. The United Nations report shows how ordinary people are volunteering their time, energies and skills to improve the way they are governed and engaged at local, national and global levels. Better governance at every level is a pre-requisite for the success of the new set of targets for future international development, the Sustainable Development Goals, which has been agreed upon by the United Nations in September 2015.
At the global level, for instance, a diverse group of 37 online volunteers from across the globe engaged in 4 months of intense collaboration with the United Nations Department of Economic Affairs (UN DESA) to process 386 research surveys carried out across 193 UN Member States for the 2014 UN E-Government Survey. The diversity of nationalities and languages of the online volunteers—more than 65 languages, 15 nationalities, of which half are from developing countries—mirrors the mission of the survey.
Benefits and challenges
Civic engagement can foster community participation and government involvement.
According to ICMA: Leaders at the Core of Better Communities, these are the benefits of civic engagement:
- Achieving greater buy-in to decisions with fewer backlashes such as lawsuits, special elections, or a council recall.
- Engendering trust between citizens and government, which improves public behavior at council meetings
- Attaining successful outcomes on toxic issues, which helps elected officials avoid choosing between equally unappealing solutions
- Developing better and more creative ideas and solutions
- Implementing ideas, programs, and policies faster and more easily
- Creating involved citizens instead of demanding customers
- Building community within a city
- Making your job easier and more relaxing
While there are benefits to civic engagement, there are challenges that must be considered. These challenges include the various factors the ICMA describes. For example, distrust, role clarification, time all play a role in challenges of civic engagement.
- Compared to direct government action, civic engagement will typically take longer for results to show. In the long run, however, the public’s reaction to a government’s decision on policies or laws can result in a faster change compared to the government engaging in lawsuits or ballot initiatives.
- In order for civic engagement to be successful, there must be a layer of transparency and trust between the government and its citizens.
Local civic engagement
Within local communities, there are many opportunities for citizens to participate in civic engagement. Volunteering personal time to community projects is widely believed to support the growth of a community as a whole. Community engagement could be found at food pantries, community clean-up programs, and the like, bolstering efforts for a strong community bond.
Community collaboration includes democratic spaces where people are open to discuss concerns for particular issues regarding public interest and means to make the changes necessary. These spaces are often resource centers, such as neighborhood associations or school boards where citizens can obtain information regarding the community (upcoming changes, proposed solutions to existing problems, etc.). Colleges and universities are also offering more opportunities and expecting more students to engage in community volunteer work.
According to a case study conducted in a U.S college on September 2014, there are pivotal leadership qualities that contribute to the development of civic engagement. The study mentions 3 main themes: active, adaptive and resilient leadership, learning for leadership and engagement for the greater good as the main reasons for the success of The Democracy Commitment (TDC) in the college. TDC is a national initiative that intend to help U.S community colleges educate their students for democracy.
Political participation is another key element that is practiced with regularity. Involvement in public council meeting sessions for discussions informs citizens of necessities and changes that need to be made. Casting an informed vote at the local level, can change many things that affect day-to-day life.
Online engagement gives citizens the opportunity to be involved in their local government that they would not have otherwise by allowing them to voice themselves from the comfort of their own home. Online engagement involves things such as online voting and public discussion forums that give citizens the opportunity to voice their opinions on topics and offer solutions as well as find others with common interests and creating the possibility of forming advocacy groups pertaining to particular interests. The use of the internet has allowed for people to have access to information easily and has resulted in a better informed public as well as creating a new sense of community for citizens.
In the role of state government
When those who serve listen to the citizens, they become better informed of what is needed by the community and generally make better decisions. Miriam Porter states that elected officials should communicate with their citizens to have this better understanding: "Without this, turmoil, suspicion, and reduction of public trust ensues". Civic engagement has an interrelated relationship within the various entities of the state. Through the values, knowledge, liberties, skills, ideas, attitudes and beliefs the population holds, civic engagement cultivates and shapes the state to be a representation of vast cultural, social, and economic identities.
Civic engagement applied within the state is not possible without local civic engagement. As in a democratic society, citizens are the source to give life to a representative democracy. Application of this principle can be found within programs and laws that states have implemented based in a variety of areas concerns for that particular state. Health, education, equality, immigration are a few examples of entities that civic engagement can shape within a state.
Application in health
States implement public health programs to better benefit the needs of the society. The State Child Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), for example, is the largest public investment in child health care aiding over 11 million uninsured children in the United States. "This statewide health insurance program for low-income children was associated with improved access, utilization, and quality of care, suggesting that SCHIP has the potential to improve health care for low-income American children". States take part in the program and sculpt it to better fit the needs of that state's demographics, making their healthcare and the civic engagement process of individuals that take part in the program as well help reform and fix it apart of the state's identity.
In comparison with other countries
States practicing public involvement and implementing public health programs to better benefit the needs of the society is a concept that is shared by other countries, such as England. A study conducted by Department of Primary Care, University of Liverpool, the Department of Social Medicine, University of Bristol, the Department of Geography and Geology, McMaster Institute of Environment and Health, McMaster University, Avon Health Authority, the School of Journalism, Tom Hopkinson Centre for Media Research, Media and Cultural Studies, Cardiff University, and the Department of Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics, Centre for Health Economics and Policy Analysis, McMaster University stated that "There are a number of impulses towards public participation in health care decision making including instrumentalist, communitarian, educative and expressive impulses and the desire for increased accountability".
Their research included critical examination of the degree of involvement by the public in healthcare decision making. It is suggested that "public participation in decision making can promote goals, bind individuals or groups together, impart a sense of competence and responsibility and help express political or civic identity". The action of the citizens aimed at influencing decisions of representatives ultimately affects the state as a whole. Voting is a key component in civic engagement for the voice of the masses to be heard.
Importance of voter turnout
The goal for state government in elections is to promote civic engagement. Director Regina Lawrence of Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life states "Politics and all other forms of engagement are really about trying to make your community, your state, and your nation a better place to live." Voter Turnout ensures civic engagement among the state with incentives that promises volunteer organizations, charity, and political involvement with everyone in the community who will have a voice to be heard.
The state can help promote civic engagement by ensuring fair voter and redistricting processes; by building partnerships among government agencies, non-profit organizations, and private citizens; and by maintaining networks of information about volunteer and charitable opportunities.
One of the main factors that determine civic engagement among the people is voter turnout. Voter turnout gauges citizens' level of political involvement, an important component of civic engagement—and a prerequisite for maintaining public accountability.
Example of high voter turnout
- The state can help promote civic engagement by ensuring fair voter and redistricting processes; by building partnerships among government agencies, non-profit organizations, and private citizens; and by maintaining networks of information about volunteer and charitable opportunities.
- Access to information about government activities, decision-making, solicit and use public input, and encourage public employees to donate and serve.
Example of low voter turnout
- Low participation with politics in the state and local government can result in less community involvement such as a lack of funding and leadership directed toward that issue of community involvement.
In marginalized communities
According to Merriam-Webster, marginalized is defined as "to put or keep (someone) in a powerless or unimportant position within a society or group". In diverse communities it is perceived that awareness and participation according to a study, using three different types of community service for the interaction between diverse individuals and understanding each other's perspective and enhancing relationships within the community. In addition, specifically black youth, there is an underlying gap of early civic education where there is lack of and where it thrives. According to Hope and Jagers, they studied civic engagement among black youth using data acquired from the Youth Culture Survey from the Black Youth Project. The assumption is that black youth who experience racial discrimination are fueled to be aware and participate in politics.
Another study by Chan describes the effect of the association of development and environmental factors among a group of at-risk youth such as African-Americans and Latino participants who come from low-income families that dwell in inner-city neighborhoods. Their research resulted in variations according to their participants as the racial minority youth were motivated and had aspiring goals for their futures due to early participation in civic engagement activities, but there was no sufficient evidence that this type of mindset will follow them into their adulthood. Looking into another oppressed group, Latinos, according to this report in the New York Times, states the number of Hispanics eligible to vote increased to an estimate of 10 million between 2000 and 2012, but there is a lack of taking an active approach toward dealing with the issues such as immigration and causing a stir within the Latino community. The Hispanic demographic is becoming a potential influence of power within political polls. To expand on another group that are oppressed is immigrant parents and their children in Jensen's study their concentration is on Asia and Latin America. In its study. they sampled a small group from a metropolitan area, the difference between both generations varies as the children who were in high school which is 87.5% were stated to be civically engaged. Whereas for the parents they were not civically engaged in issues but developed "bilcultural consciousness" such as sending money back their original country of origin and these participants saw it as their duty in their current state of opportunity to be civically engaged.
Television use – Social capital has been on the decline for years and Putnam looked into why this is. One of the areas the study covered was television and its effects on social and civic engagements. Shah writes that Putnam found the more TV a person watches, the less they are active in outside activities. This is shown with the rise of TV in the 1960s and the fall of civic engagements. They found that though news and educational programming can actually aide in a citizen's knowledge, but the lack of engaging in outside activities and social events hurts civic engagement in general.
Nowadays, the internet has become the main social media outlet. Xenos and Moy found that the internet does help civic engagement but also give "unjustifiable euphoria, abrupt and equally unjustifiable skepticism, and gradual realization that web-based human interaction really does have unique and politically significant properties". We have all the information we want about and candidate at our fingertips, and the wealth of information is creating a more informed body. But with this comes misinformation and the two collide and do the opposite, creating a public with clashing opinions.
In relation to civic engagement and television use, there has been a push for civic engagement from television providers themselves. On September 22, 2020, WarnerMedia launched a nonpartisan voter engagement resource center, with the hopes of giving more citizens the access to vote and better understanding on how to do so.
E-Services - The Knight Foundation outlines four different ways technology can assist in civic engagement. The four different ways include upgrading and providing e-services, making information more transparent, allowing e-democracy, and a service they call co-production. E-services would allow digital technologies to improve the efficiency of urban services within a city. This would allow the services to become more effective as well as give the public a way to get involved. E-democracy and co-production would work by allowing citizens to shape public policy by allowing them to partake in actions through technology. The Knight Foundation claims technology can make information more transparent, allowing the public to access the information and get involved.
Social Entrepreneurship - Social entrepreneurship has seen a major increase in activity in recent years. One example can be seen from Eric Gordon and Jessica Philippi, who released a study on their interactive online game for local engagement called Community PlanIt (CPI). The purpose of CPI is to improve civic engagement qualitatively, rather than focusing on increasing the number of citizens getting involved. The study concluded that CPI encourages reflective attitudes and mediates relationships of trust that are needed for functional and continued civic engagement.
Social Media - There are handfuls of studies and journals that focus on the impact that social media has on civic engagement. In a study mentioned in a later section on civic engagement around the world, interviewees from Norway “generally use Facebook to invite people to some form of face-to-face meeting at the beginning of a community engagement - and to facilitate the ongoing engagement of participants”. Additional research demonstrates the capabilities of Facebook and other social networks in their enablement of civic participation. In Asia, a study was conducted focusing on the impact that the rise of Internet communication had on social capital. This study concluded that, while the Internet’s role is to provide citizens with more opportunities to contact each other, it does not play a role in increasing different measures of social capital such as trust. Furthermore, the study concluded that “social capital developed through voluntary participation in social organization has the greatest effectiveness in promoting all sorts of civic engagement".
Civic engagement around the world
First, there is Norway with a study on “Local Newspapers, Facebook and Local Civic Engagement” by Malene Paulsen Lie. The study aimed to “[investigate] the ways in which a selection of the inhabitants of two Norwegian communities make use of the local press and Facebook…” and concluded that “both Facebook and the local press play important roles in civic engagement”, illustrating the various mediums that citizens utilize. When looking at the demographics of each medium, this study also saw that the younger demographic strayed from local newspapers and preferred national or international news, while the older demographic prioritized the local newspaper.
In Poland, social media plays an important role in the level of civic engagement for mayoral elections. A study concluded that “successful engagement in social media accounts is also higher when the mayor operates in an active social media environment”.
In Australia, a study was conducted, recognizing various forms of civic engagement such as “social protest and collective action, and specific organizations dedicated to lobbying and advocacy”. The study goes on to say that governments in Australia generally prefer to initiate processes of consultation of their own choosing rather than being perceived to be consulting only in response to pressure and social protest”.
South East Asia
In South East Asia, a study was conducted focusing on civic engagement within mental health services, more specifically in low and middle-income countries (LMICs). In these countries, the study concluded that Civic Engagement interventions can be successfully implemented yet Western models should be adapted in order to better fit with local cultures and values. Furthermore, the communities in these LMICs that face armed conflict, natural disasters, or political suppression find community cohesion to be a common outcome of civic engagement initiatives. Focusing on the mental health impact, civic engagement allowed citizens to develop a better understanding of the problems and equip themselves with the necessary skills to meet the needs of their local mental health problems. The study refers to the 2004 Asian Tsunami crisis, where “trusted community volunteers played a key role in the delivery of much needed mental health services”.
In China, participatory budgeting experiments, an example of civic empowerment including all members of society, promote a degree of transparency and fairness, as a vast majority of the budgeting takes place at local levels and smaller villages (He). In the next decade, China and the NPC plans to implement more participatory budgeting experiments and an increased amount of participation from citizens. However, the empowerment of local People’s Congresses will remain constrained by the caution of the central leaders and resistance from local governments. In this same way, the government will remain controlling over citizen empowerment.
There are countries, like Romania, where the new technologies started to influence the civic participation, in the last years. New media is becoming a factor of increasing civic mobilization for the new generations. New studies about that, at Center for Civic Participation and Democracy from SNSPA. Center for Civic Participation and Democracy (CPD) is a unit of research, analysis, and evaluation of citizen participation in the democratic process, both at the national and European level. Created at the National School of Political Science and Public Administration, CPD brings together experts in areas such as political science, sociology, administrative sciences, communications, international relations, and European studies, and it objectifies the SNSPA role and status of school of governance. It is run by Remus Pricopie and Dan Sultanescu.
Role of higher education
It can be argued that a fundamental step in creating a functioning society begins with the civic education of children within the community. According to Diann Cameron Kelly, "When our young children serve their communities through volunteerism, political participation or through vocal activism, they are more likely to emerge...voting and serving all aspects of society". Kelly argues that children should be taught how their community works and who chooses the rules we live by even before they enter school. Other voices maintain that civic education is a lifelong process, even for those who make decisions on behalf of the citizens they serve.
To answer this challenge, the incorporation of service-learning into collegiate course design has gained acceptance as a pedagogy that links curricular content with civic education. In a recent study, students who participated in service learning even one time appear to have made gains in knowledge of and commitment to civic engagement when compared to non-service learners. Campus Compact, a coalition of nearly 1200 college presidents (as of 2013) promotes the development of citizenship skills by creating community partnerships and providing resources to train faculty to integrate civic and community-based learning into the curriculum. Building on the acceptance of service learning and civic engagement in higher education, The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement in Teaching created the Political Engagement Project in 2003 to develop the political knowledge and skills of college-aged students. The American Democracy Project (ADP) was launched in the same year by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU). The American Democracy Project was joined by the American Democracy Commitment, a partnership of community colleges, to sponsor an annual national conference focused on higher education's role in preparing the next generation of informed, engaged citizens. The American Democracy Project also sponsors campus-based initiatives including voter registration, curriculum revision projects, and special days of action and reflection, such as the MLK Day of Service. In a report entitled, A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy's Future issued in 2012 by the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement, a joint project of the U.S. Department of Education and the American Association of Colleges and Universities, the authors argue that higher education must serve as an intellectual incubator and socially responsible partner in advancing civic learning and democratic engagement.
The report recommends four basic steps to build civic minded institutions:
- Foster a civic ethos across the campus culture.
- Make civic literacy a core expectation for all students.
- Practice civic inquiry across all fields of study.
- Advance civic action through transformative partnerships.
These higher education-based initiatives endeavor to build in college students, a politically engaged identity while enhancing the capacity to evaluate the political landscape and make informed decisions about participation in our democracy. As evidenced by the growth in coalitions, professional development opportunities and civic education research, institutions of higher education and their association partners are committed to help prepare the next generation of citizens to become tomorrow's "Stewards of Place".
Many universities, like the University of Minnesota, have begun to focus on increasing the civic engagement of students and have mandated that educators begin incorporating it into several school activities. Edwin Fogelman, author of Civic Engagement at the University of Minnesota, states that true civic engagement can only be practiced by those living within a Democracy. According to Fogelman, civic engagement is largely shaped by schools. Education institutions have the skills to foster "civic competence, critical thinking, and Public Spirit, which empower citizens to become engaged". Many claim that civic engagement ought to become part of the curriculum and that higher education institutions should provide opportunities to become engaged such as internships, service-learning, and community based activities. Institutions also need to provide outlets where students can have open discussions over concerns and controversial issues.
Some schools, such as Widener University, have made civic engagement a core goal of the university. The university strives to get students involved in the local community to become more aware and civically engaged. (Civic Engagement And Service Learning In A Metropolitan University: Multiple Approaches And Perspectives).
In January 2012, the U.S. Department of Education issued a road map titled Advancing Civic Learning and Engagement in Democracy that offers nine steps to enhancing the Department of Education's commitment to civic learning and engagement in democracy.
These steps include:
- Convene and catalyze schools and post-secondary institutions to increase and enhance high-quality civic learning and engagement
- Identify additional civic indicators
- Identify promising practices in civic learning and democratic engagement—and encourage further research to learn what works
- Leverage federal investments and public-private partnerships
- Encourage community-based work-study placements
- Encourage public service careers among college students and graduates
- Support civic learning for a well-rounded K–12 curriculum
- Engage historically black colleges and universities and other minority-serving institutions—including Hispanic-serving institutions, Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander–Serving Institutions, and tribal colleges and universities-in a national dialogue to identify best practices.
- Highlight and promote student and family participation in education programs and policies at the federal and local levels
Civic learning, however, also has its challenges. From W. Lance Bennett’s Young Citizens and New Media, the challenge of civic education and learning is the integration and adaptation to the more contemporary attitude toward politics, which revolves more around the quality of personal life, social recognition, and self esteem.
Civil engagement during COVID-19
- Joining Zoom events/online live sessions. Individuals can go on live streams to learn more about the upcoming election and find ways to contribute to becoming an active voter
- Contacting local office leaders to assist with COVID-19 issues that can be easily tackled with a group of people
- Spreading awareness of registration for upcoming Election and spread awareness of local assistance locations
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- Silver, Paula, Stephen C. Wilhite, and Michael W. Ledoux. Civic Engagement And Service Learning In A Metropolitan University : Multiple Approaches And Perspectives. New York: Nova Science Publishers, Inc, 2011. eBook Academic Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 13 Apr. 2016.
- U.S. Department of Education, Office of the Under Secretary and Office of Postsecondary Education, Advancing Civic Learning and Engagement in Democracy: A Road Map and Call to Action, Washington, D.C., 2012. pp. 22–26.
- Dahlgren, Peter (2013-10-11). Young Citizens and New Media: Learning for Democratic Participation. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-134-15628-3.