What is civic participation?

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What is civic participation?

Civic participation is the involvement of individual constituents or communities in local, state, and national government. Civic involvement can include voting, political activism, volunteering, and community engagement. In short, it is the participation of people in government and democratic processes. 

What are civic activities?

The potential list of civic activities that comprise civic participation is almost endless, and of course varies from place to place. A few examples of civic participation on the local government level include:

  • Voting
  • Attending a council meeting 
  • Working at a communal garden or community activity center 
  • Volunteer opportunities 

Why is civic participation important to good governance?

Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America, writes “The health of a democratic society may be measured by the quality of functions performed by private citizens.” The “quality of functions” is civic involvement. Civic activities are an essential part of good local governance because democracy needs these two elements to successfully function.

Government unites people through common goals and common laws. There are many different forms of government, some more successful than others, but regardless government organizations, like local governments, are constantly evolving along with changing values that then become reflected in the governors and the governed. To evolve in a way that results in better services, needs meet, and more equity – civic participation is essential.  

Civic participation is essential because it allows citizens to influence policy, local values, and local government priorities. This, in turn, leads to a higher level of trust, stronger, happier communities, and creates agency among residents who are often overlooked and underheard. 

What are the benefits of civic participation?

Civic involvement doesn’t stand alone. Civic participation, beyond just voting, can positively impact local governments. It also benefits many more aspects of a resident’s life than just the government entity itself. 

Benefits for local governments include: 

  • Increasing community engagement: Civic activities are not the same as community engagement. However, neither exists in a vacuum. The more engaged residents are in their local community, the more these same residents participate in civic activities. Civic participation creates a positive cycle that carries with it many benefits, including better governance and mental and health benefits for residents.  
  • Raising inclusion and equity levels: 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 participation helps empower all residents and helps government leaders understand their resident’s needs and priorities. Understanding from across communities and participation by residents across different communities, encourages more participation, raising levels of equity and inclusion. These residents see how the government works up close, and their experiences are taken back and shared with their community resulting in a positive cycle of civic participation. 

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 The main benefits of civic participation for residents are:

  • Improving physical and mental health: 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.  
  • Creating next-generation leaders: 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. It is imperative that all generations are involved in passing the torch of citizen engagement and keeping the flame alive for all citizens.  

What are the challenges of civic participation?

According to the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life at the University of Texas, Austin, there are five main challenges to civic participation. We’ve listed and expanded upon them below, and added some additional challenges:

  1. Civility: As we all know, our current society is very polarized. This polarization causes people to turn away from civic participation and lose faith and trust in government. It begins to seem as though nothing will ever change and that the situation is hopeless. It becomes easier to just ignore it and walk away than to engage and participate.
  2. Role models: In our modern world, it is sometimes difficult to tell the role model from those who are simply speaking the loudest. Without role models, the younger generation will not necessarily see the importance of civic engagement. 
  3. Skills: The skills needed for civic participation are skills such as empathy, the ability to listen, and the ability to lead and to be physically present in our cities and communities. We are more used to focusing on technological skills rather than how to successfully communicate or even how to run for office.
  4. Awareness: The sheer volume of information available every day doesn’t leave time to sift through and determine what is most valuable. Awareness of what is going on around you is key to civic participation which is often spurred by events happening (or not happening) in your local community. 
  5. Knowledge of how to participate: Many students take a civics class in high school, and that is the end of their formal education about government and civics in America. It can sometimes be unclear how to participate, how to vote, how to volunteer and residents can also find it intimidating. Cities and counties need to communicate clearly and through various channels to let residents know what is happening in their community. 
  6. Barriers to participation: To truly hear from all corners of a community, the entire community needs to be able to participate in the survey. Some of the barriers to participating are not targeting a wide range of residents, slow or spotty internet connections and time which is a precious resource for residents of all ages. 

How to increase civic participation

The Brookings Institution, in honor of the year 1776, wrote a list of 76 ways to “boost civic engagement”. Among the many things suggested are how Americans can increase their own participation in local government. For example, the list suggests to: stay informed, vote, volunteer, build community, and just simply to get out there and get involved. 

But how do local governments increase civic participation? By encouraging and supporting:

  • Community engagement
  • Community development
  • Independent media
  • Inclusivity and equity
  • Transparent communication and governance

Simply put, local governments need to provide the tools and the opportunities for civic engagement. 

How can citizens and governments work together?

  1. Connect: There is no shortage of ways to connect to your citizens. Social media, official city or county websites, text messaging, chatbots, surveys, and old-fashioned town hall meetings. All of these ways are channels to hear from residents and to share with them: what is happening currently, what might happen in the future, and why something happened in the past. Remember, the more they know, the more they will want to be involved. 
  2. Listen: Don’t rely on the STP (same ten people) to convey what is happening in your community. Hear from your entire community using a platform like Zencity. For instance, the City of Scottsdale, AZ, wanted to understand what the majority of their City was thinking about a proposed bond program. In fact, there was civic participation taking place, but the City didn’t have a way to listen to that engagement. By looking at the data, the City understood what was missing from their messaging and why residents were opposed to the proposal. Read the full case study here.
  3. Act: Finally, local governments must act upon the issues that are motivating civic participation. Once they act, cities and counties need to know whether their actions are successful. Read about how one county used community feedback to understand the effectiveness of their COVID-19 vaccination strategy.

Zencity’s Civic Engagement Solution

Zencity’s community insights and analytics platform is the leading civic engagement software out there for local governments, built to power smart decisions. Our platform gathers organic and proactive feedback from all corners of your community, translating millions of community feedback data points into actionable insights.