What is civic engagement?

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What is civic engagement?

Civic engagement is a two-way engagement process where local government or official organizations engage with their residents and residents engage with the government and organizations in return.  

Civic engagement can be described as “efforts that seek to listen to, and learn from, residents in ongoing conversations and leverage those insights to shape the way programs are administered, designed and executed.” According to the National Civic League, communities that have inclusive civic engagement “experience greater equity, display greater civic pride and exhibit stronger civic responsibility.” 

A city council meeting is a good example of civic engagement. Both the council and the residents are there to listen. The council listens to the opinions of their residents about certain issues, the residents listen to the council, and this two way conversation increases the transparency of governmental processes.

Why is civic engagement important?

Civic engagement is important because it empowers residents to interact with local government to have their voices heard and their needs met. When residents share their voices, governments are better positioned to meet their needs, to prioritize resources according to these needs, and to provide the best services possible. Additionally, civic engagement helps to build on these key democratic principles:

  1. Social capital: Social capital is defined by the OECD as “networks together with shared norms, values and understandings that facilitate co-operation within or among groups.” These networks can come together to influence local governments through civic engagement thus impacting policy change and policy that works with and serves the needs of the local community. According to ASPA “This social connectedness is crucial to human development and healthy family functioning and cuts across all social and educational levels in our society. A democracy and its public policy are dependent upon having these healthy connections and shared values.”
  2. Democratic process: The act of voting is perhaps one of the best known expressions of  civic engagement. But it is much more than that, it is a basic building block of the democratic process. Civic engagement is a key to democracy through civic participation, like taking part in a community survey or online forum, attendance at council meetings, organizing around local issues, and working to include as many residents as possible in the process.
  3. Community organizing: Community organization is a way for local residents to build social capital, and to help their community reflect shared values. Community organizing is also a way to bring together people who support a shared purpose or cause, and to affect change in their community and in their local government.
  4. Leadership development: Civic engagement by residents under the age of 25 is “working to make a difference in the civic life of one’s community.” In order to make a difference, civically involved youth need guidance, education, mentors, and the skills to become the next generation of civic leaders. There are many programs that encourage the younger generation to not only understand their government, but to participate in it as well. 

What are the benefits of civic engagement?

The benefits of civic engagement extend not only to those that participate in civic activities but also to society in general. The beneficiaries of civic engagement are not only community participants but government officials who who can serve their constituencies better through providing:  

  • Equity: Communities are made up of individuals and each individual comes from a unique background, maybe a different country, perhaps speaks and feels comfortable in different languages, has their own level of education, family status, and more. These are, of course, only a few of the variables that make up a city, county, or community. Civic engagement helps empower all residents and helps government leaders understand all their residents’ diverse needs and priorities. Participation by residents across different communities, encourages more participation and ensures that governments hear from a diverse array of voices that actually represents the people they serve so that they can make decisions that benefit all residents and raise levels of equity and inclusion.
  • Trust: According to a World Bank study on building trust in government: “Political trust is often understood as people’s trust in their governments based on performance and expectations. … [P]eople’s engagement experience with government can also influence the level of political trust. This [trust] is determined by the citizens’ satisfaction on the level, depth, and quality of engagement in the government’s decision-making process. People may or may not be satisfied with an engagement’s outcome, but the engagement in the process may allow government to earn legitimacy and the confidence of citizens.” Trust can also be built through positive social media interactions with official local government accounts or through the accessibility of public records, such as council meeting transcripts.

  • Quality of life: Studies have shown that civic engagement has a secondary effect of improving physical and mental health. The act of voting is shown to influence voters to self report better health. Volunteering, in any capacity, helps maintain mental health through increasing your network of friends and resources. “The relationship between a person’s level of civic engagement and their connection to the community is incredibly strong. We discovered that, on almost every single measure, people who are civically engaged are significantly more connected with their community than anyone else. The civically engaged are much more likely to help their neighbors, work with them to solve community problems, and say that their community is an excellent place to live.” said Ryan Streeter, American Enterprise Institute’s (AEI) Director of Domestic Policy Studies when talking about a recent survey on community and society in America.

What is the difference between civic engagement and community engagement?

The word civic comes from the Latin word for city, and can describe anything to do with a city. In modern parlance, it’s come to mean anything to do with government, in general. The difference between civic engagement and community engagement revolves around that definition. Civic engagement can be anything from voting to participating in local government led programs. Community engagement is a bottom up approach. Community engagement can also include civic engagement, but also happens when residents and non-governmental organizations take on an issue or support a cause. Community engagement can be anything from volunteering at your local food bank or participating in a rally supporting a local investment initiative. 

Civic engagement in the digital age

Civic engagement no longer stops at the door of your residents’ homes. It’s a possibility 24/7. Done right, government leaders can make civic engagement opportunities accessible to a broad and diverse audience and the digital age makes civic engagement more accessible than ever. Technology means that when given the option to, residents can can engage or participate whenever, and wherever they are, and about whichever topic or issue they choose. That is if governments are leveraging the right tools. 

Even in 2018, before the pandemic, roughly half of Americans said they were civically active on social media. They had taken part in an online community group, shared a hashtag, looked up information on local events, initiatives, or rallies, and encouraged people to support a certain topic or issue. 

Since then, social media use has only grown, and along with it, the impact of social media on civic engagement. Once COVID-19 hit, it was not a matter of online or offline but remote civic engagement, and one of the key players in that scenario was and remains social media – digital civic engagement. 

Learn more about the social media opportunity when it comes to civic engagement

What are examples of civic engagement?

There are many types of civic engagement projects out there and many different ways to participate in civic engagement. The civic activities listed below are only the tip of the iceberg:. 

  1. Political participation: According to the AEI survey on community and society mentioned above: “Political participation correlates with feelings of political efficacy … 43% of those who think ordinary citizens can do a lot to influence the government say they were politically active in four or more ways, compared to 24% of those who say there is not much ordinary citizens can do.”
  2. Activism: Activism involves organizing to make a difference to bring about change in political policy and behavior. Black Lives Matter is an example of activism in order to bring about systemic change in policing and society overall. This kind of civic engagement has begun to change the state of policing in America and the justice system. 
  3. Volunteering: Volunteering is one of the key pillars of civic engagement. According to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, “An increase in volunteerism indicates greater civic engagement, which is key to making health a shared value and encouraging social cohesion.” Volunteering also helps communities better deal with emergency situations where people are ready, and able to help their neighbors. Volunteering also has health benefits and helps with providing a sense of connection to the community and purpose. 
  4. Advocating: The Olmstead Implementation Office (OIO) is a blueprint for the state of Minnesota to make sure people with disabilities have opportunities to live and work successfully. Inclusion and civic engagement is an important part of this Office. Their Community Engagement Advisory Board asked for feedback after every meeting they stated that:  “The information was critical in honing the board’s collaboration over time and improving everybody’s experience. Without this information and the changes to the process that were made because of it, the board’s work would have floundered.”  

Civic engagement is a key part of democratic societies as Abraham Lincoln stated in his Gettysburg address “…government of the people, by the people, for the people.” Lincoln’s description of a democratic government requires the two-way dialogue of civic engagement. Civic engagement must encompass listening, responding and acting by both people and local government. 

Learn more about how Zencity can help you listen and respond to your residents, and act on their valuable input. Schedule a demo today.