Local governments often have a more significant impact on the lives of their residents and voters than state or even the Federal government. With the ability to impact people’s day-to-day lives and quality of life, it is essential for citizens to be engaged members of the public dialogue and decision-making process. In this way, civic engagement is crucial for local government, yet in an era of digital transformation, enabling civic engagement is possibly easier—and more critical—than ever before.
What Does Civic Engagement Mean?
Let’s start with a definition. Civic engagement encompasses the process of local leaders and residents working together to improve a community and the lives of its members. Similarly, The Center for Democracy and Citizenship describes civic engagement as “contributing to public life and participating in solving public problems,” while The New York Times describes civic engagement as “working to make a difference in the civic life of our communities and…promoting the quality of life in a community, through both political and non-political processes.”
Four Constructs of Civic Engagement
If civic engagement seems like a broad term, it is. Civic engagement includes such constructs as civic action, civic skills, social cohesion, and civic commitment. By broadening the definition, one can see how civic engagement includes community volunteerism (civic action), employee recruitment and retention (civic skills), cultural awareness, diversity and inclusion programming (social cohesion), community improvement participation, and even voting (civic commitment).
Further refining the definition of civic engagement to something more tangible, it must include such concepts as knowledge sharing, the values that define a community, open dialogue, and the democratic process of debating, lobbying, and voting. Citizens who are engaged in the progress of their community realize that every vote does count, and that they, their family, and their home are part of a broad social fabric and that they have the power to be part of collective efforts to improve the public good. This type of individual and collective awareness is critical for the success of any community.
What Does Civic Engagement Mean for Local Governments?
For cities, counties, villages, towns, and other municipalities, fostering a sense of civic engagement means encouraging residents to be morally and civically responsible members of the community. It means encouraging idea sharing, participation in community improvement projects, and even reporting broken streetlights and down tree branches to local leaders—all because residents care about their quality of life and see their community as a vital component of that life.
How Can Local Governments Encourage Civic Engagement?
Local leaders can foster a culture of civic engagement through simple and effective means that demonstrate their desire for transparency, citizen involvement, and open dialogue. To amplify civic engagement levels in your community:
- Hold regular open public forums. Hearing the voices of your voters is essential not just when making decisions on impactful improvement projects and initiatives but in general civic leadership. By creating opportunities for citizens to listen and be heard, you create an educated, informed, and invested population of taxpayers and voters. To further increase the number of citizens who can take part in open forums, live stream your meetings and share the recordings to your local government website.
- Make it easy for citizens to find the services and information they need. If individuals need to carve time out of their day to drive to town hall to obtain a permit, license, job application, or register for a parks and recreation class, they are less likely to do it. In the era of digital transformation, citizens want on-demand, device agnostic access to forms, applications, information, and resources that will allow them to self-service their needs, even if it’s midnight on a Saturday and they are searching for information from a tablet.
- Be transparent. Transparency is one of the most valuable tools to build trust between citizens and their government. By making public records such as budgets, agendas, meeting minutes, planning materials, and meeting recordings available to citizens on-demand right from their desktop computer or mobile device, they will feel more trusting of local leadership and will be more open to participating in community dialogue and initiatives confidently. Even social media can help demonstrate transparency and engage citizens.
The final important factor to consider when prioritizing civic engagement is to accept it as an evolving ideal, and a goal that your administration will regularly need to prioritize, revisit, re-strategize, and measure. Local governments cannot create a single initiative to improve civic engagement and then check it off a to-do list. Civic engagement must be continually considered, and all actions that impact the good of the community must be viewed through the lens of citizen engagement. For every new effort, voting season, and strategic plan, ask yourself how you can motivate citizens to become engaged in the decision making and approval process, and then take steps to listen, document, and react to their opinions. Remember, communities that benefit from more engaged citizens benefit from happier citizens, more informed voters, and more satisfied taxpayers.