Building a Better Citizen

How the government can make us better at self-government.
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How the government can make us better at self-government.

In the late 1980s, Hampton, Va., faced the challenges of many blue-collar cities along its stretch of the southern Chesapeake: rising unemployment, a stagnant economy and the flight of young families to seek better jobs and fuller lives elsewhere. City leaders gambled on a novel response. They would target young people, hoping to cultivate a generation of citizens committed to Hampton's long-term vitality. In 1990, the city launched Hampton Youth Civic Engagement, a program to instill community pride and leadership skills in young people and engage them in governance. The program was systematic, first fostering civic awareness through local service projects, then building collaboration and leadership skills through involvement with city boards and commissions on issues of increasing complexity. Young people contributed ideas — on better policing, school reform, job training — and helped with policy implementation.

Nearly two decades later, the program is still in operation and recognized as a national model for fostering civic engagement. A study of Hampton's college-age residents has found they outperform peer groups in three key measures of citizenship: the ability to engage in civic discourse, passion for their community and leadership skills. Fewer families are fleeing the city, crime is down and Hampton's voting rate is about 20 percent higher than similar communities. In 2005, the city received the Harvard Kennedy School of Government's annual Innovations in American Government Award. In 2007, Money magazine rated the city as one of the "Best Places to Live" in the U.S.

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"What Hampton shows us is that local government can prepare its leaders of tomorrow, but it also shows that government can engage people, of all ages and backgrounds, to bring real value — things of substance — to the community today," says Carmen Sirianni, a professor of sociology and public policy at Brandeis University, whose new book, Investing in Democracy: Engaging Citizens in Collaborative Governance, provides an in-depth case study of the Hampton program. "Enlightened leaders recognize that public issues are getting more complex. Civic engagement today is far more complicated than just showing up at a city council meeting and raising your hand."

To be sure, Hampton's experiment in civic engineering is rarely repeated. Even rarer is the source of the inspiration — elected officials, who often view public participation in decision-making as anathema. But a growing body of evidence and the culture shift accompanying the election of President Obama are prompting policymakers at all levels of government to consider programs and policies that strengthen the skills and character traits that promote good citizenship: pride in community, trust in individuals and institutions, the ability to work in groups, membership in service organizations, and even social interaction among neighbors. Political scientists and others who study the democratic process are finding that those skills and traits often correlate with the positive policy outcomes public officials routinely hope to foster, including lower crime rates, higher academic achievement, the creation of jobs and improved health care delivery. In essence, some experts are arguing that good citizenship should not simply be a means to an end; it should, by itself, be a policy objective. "Why not?" Sirianni asks. "Government invests in a lot of things. Why not civic engagement?"

In 2000, Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam rode the talk show circuit plugging his best-seller, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, a data-driven analysis of civic interaction in the U.S. over the past half-century or so. Putnam coined the term "social capital" to describe the intangible, value-laden benefits of a strong network of community relationships. In short, he argued, things like trust and cooperation — the building blocks of democratic governance — are products of positive, sustained social interaction. "Bowling alone" was the metaphor for Americans' growing isolation.

Putnam's research revealed that communities where social capital is high are more likely to experience lower school dropout rates, less crime, fewer hospitalizations and higher rates of economic growth, among myriad indicators of personal and societal well-being that are positively correlated with strong community relationships. His 2003 follow-up book, Better Together: Restoring the American Community (co-authored with philanthropy expert Lewis M. Feldstein) grew from a series of round-table meetings — The Saguaro Seminar at Harvard's Kennedy School — where academics, industry officials and political leaders discussed strategies to replenish America's dwindling stock of social capital.

Among the seminar's early participants was Barack Obama, then an Illinois state senator.

While some researchers say Putnam overlooked the impact of online relationships and other emerging forms of community interaction, his basic thesis has held up to scrutiny. One study found that rates of heart disease decline when neighborhood bonds are strong, even when factoring out material wealth and other socioeconomic variables; another showed that social connectedness is a stronger predictor of perceived quality of life than income or educational level. A wide-ranging Knight Foundation study released last fall found a strong correlation between levels of civic engagement and cities' rates of economic growth. And a number of studies have shown that public corruption declines as social capital goes up, prompting the World Bank to encourage civic engagement as a business development strategy.

"Good citizenship makes a big difference. That we know," says Peter Levine, director of The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University's Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service. "Government functions better; public health outcomes are better; higher civic engagement among teens correlates with greater academic achievement."

Yet, as Putnam has noted, indicators of citizenship in America continue a long and, in some cases, precipitous decline, leading Levine and others to question why government officials aren't more receptive to programs that invigorate their citizenry. Over the past 50 years or so, studies show, Americans have become less knowledgeable of local and national affairs, less likely to engage in public discourse, less willing to join a group or civic organization, less likely to interact with neighbors and more likely to perceive fellow citizens as dishonest and immoral. Three years ago, the National Conference on Citizenship, a congressionally chartered nonprofit advocacy group that measures, tracks and promotes civic participation in the U.S., produced its first national Civic Health Index, a comprehensive assessment of civic well-being compiled from 40 indicators such as voting rates, frequency of public meeting attendance and confidence in government.

Despite recent gains in some categories, like volunteering and political expression, the overall trend line over 30 years shows a steady decline.

Most troubling, NCoC executive director David Smith notes, is an ongoing erosion of what he believes to be the most fundamental indicators of good citizenship: trust in neighbors and institutions and connectedness to community and religious organizations. Trust and connectedness is lowest among the so-called Millennial group — 14-to-29-year-olds. "To me this is one big red flag," Smith says. "The very foundations of our democracy are threatened if our youngest citizens do not maintain the fabric that has connected us the past 200 years."

Smith and others in the field attribute declining trust levels and other civic health indicators to a host of U.S. labor and lifestyle changes over the past half-century, including the rise of women in the work force, the explosion of television viewership and Internet use, and the isolating nature of suburbia. In short, they say, there is less of the face-to-face interaction that builds interdependence and encourages collective problem-solving within society.

Putnam's research also suggests, controversially, that rising rates of neighborhood diversity may exacerbate the trend. His latest study, based on interviews of nearly 30,000 people across the country, shows that as diversity within a community goes up, virtually every measure of civic health goes down: Fewer people vote and volunteer, they give less to charity, and they are less inclined to work on community projects. In the most diverse communities, trust among neighbors is about half the level of the most homogenous settings.

Tuft's Levine says government also bears blame for the erosion of our civic fabric by responding with increasing suspicion to citizen initiatives. Levine laments the dwindling number of civic associations and citizen boards on which people could develop the habits of collective engagement necessary for a strong democracy. In one striking example, the raw number of school board seats across the country (not per capita) has declined 80 percent since 1930. Levine faults government, at all levels, for a "strong technocratic urge" that discourages citizen engagement.

"The attitude from government is that 'we're experts so we know best,'" Levine says. "Citizen participation can be quite costly and cumbersome. But we're seeing that it can be even more costly when people feel they are not part of the process."

Brandeis' Sirianni, who studies civic engagement programs in cities around the U.S., says research is beginning to support that argument. "Neighborhood empowerment, citizen involvement — in the long run this saves money by providing better policy outcomes," he says.

For their part, Americans seem ready to re-engage, but they also, somewhat paradoxically, expect government to pave the way. The National Conference on Citizenship's 2008 Civic Health Survey found that Americans overwhelmingly support laws and policies to improve citizenship. Among the initiatives researchers tested for public support: civics education in schools, service learning and tuition-for-service programs, and town hall-style gatherings to deliberate on issues of local or national importance. In other words, Americans need cajoling. Last year, for example, 67 percent of survey respondents said volunteering was personally important to them, but only 27 percent actually do volunteer.

Smith says Americans want improved citizenship like they want improved gas mileage — through government mandates and incentives: "People say they'll gladly buy cars that get 40 miles to a gallon, but only when the government tells them they have to."

A few U.S. cities are crafting programs that provide just those kinds of mandates and incentives. Some, like San Francisco's Youth Commission, focus on connecting young people to their communities and government. Others, like the 10-year-old Boston Indicators Project, are more comprehensive, fostering discussion of critical issues and tracking progress on shared goals. And last fall, the Minneapolis City Council created the Neighborhood and Community Engagement Commission, a mechanism to stimulate interaction between the government and citizens.

The most widely cited example of a municipal government overtly fostering better citizenship may be Seattle - another recipient of Harvard's Innovations in American Government Award — where semi-autonomous neighborhood councils can enact policy and allocate public money. Begun more than 20 years ago in response to citizen concerns over crime, drugs and growth management, the program was designed to provide residents a greater say in the allocation of tax dollars.

Since then, residents have leveraged city matching funds with their own resources and labor to create more than 3,000 community projects, including new playgrounds and art installations. An unintended consequence of the neighborhood councils seems to be an informed, engaged public that routinely scores higher on measures of civic health than is the case in comparable cities. "We've been able to build a much stronger sense of community here," says Jim Diers, author of Neighbor Power: Building Community the Seattle Way and founding director of the city's Department of Neighborhoods. "And in the process, our attitude toward city hall has changed, our sense of government has changed. It's not just something that spends our tax dollars; it's something that's an extension of who we are as citizens."

Such cases of systemic overhaul are rare and certainly not the only approach to invigorating citizens. Diers, who now teaches community organizing and community-driven development at the University of Washington, says government can take plenty of less-comprehensive steps that influence the key civic health indicators.

A starting point, Diers says, is for public officials to acknowledge that civic health matters and can be influenced by government policy. Diers advises public officials who want to improve citizen participation to keep it simple in the beginning, monitoring concrete activities like voting rates, meeting attendance and participation on boards and committees. Measurements of social capital and civic health reflect broader accumulations of data and are more difficult to interpret. "Conversation is a first step but sometimes a difficult one to reach," Diers says. "In Seattle, civic well-being is a priority because we've all been talking about it for a long time."

To take the conversation up a level, some experts recommend a little-used measurement tool called a "social capital impact assessment" that gauges the effects of public policy initiatives on civic life. In one instance, a group of small towns in southern New Hampshire requested such an assessment before backing a widening project of I-93. The assessment asked how neighbors would be disconnected, if church and meeting attendance would decline and whether trust would be reduced as a result of the highway project. Satisfied with the results of the assessment, local officials signed off on the widening, which is now under way, but secured state funding for a five-year state program to help the affected towns address the challenges of disruption and dislocation, and to prepare for an influx of new residents once the widening is complete.

Government can also influence civic health indicators by attending to scale. Research shows that smaller is generally better as it relates to physical and social environments. Tufts' Levine says studies show that academic achievement is inversely proportionate to school size — at least, to a point. Although some researchers are unconvinced, the argument, he says, is simple: In smaller settings, children are more likely to participate in clubs, sports and other extracurricular activities that constitute the training ground for adult civic engagement. Scale also affects trust, meeting attendance and feelings of community connectedness, Levine says, explaining why civic health tends to be higher in small towns or in larger cities — such as Seattle and Minneapolis — where neighborhood-level governance is in place.

Although the overall Civic Health Index has shown a steady decline in recent decades, two closely watched indicators used in that index — voting and volunteerism, especially among younger age groups — are up. Smith attributes this to post-9/11 programs and polices that mandate community service within many schools, and to unprecedented voter-registration and get-out-the-vote drives, especially aimed at young people and minorities. Even the parents of children who participated in the Topeka, Kan.-based Kids Voting program were 10 percent more likely to vote than parents of non-participants.

But voting and volunteerism are the low-hanging fruit of citizenship. More vital, Smith and other researchers say, is a mindset of concern, a sense of pride and responsibility toward one's community that is less easily engineered and measured than a trip to the voting booth. Archon Fung, the Ford Foundation Professor of Democracy and Citizenship at Harvard's Kennedy School, says the keys to fostering a citizen mindset are genuine opportunities to participate in policymaking. In previous generations, he argues, those opportunities were found in neighborhood associations, churches, civic clubs and other membership organizations. Today, he says, government is centralized. Elected and appointed leaders focus inward, diminishing the relevance of membership associations and reducing opportunities for citizen partnerships.

Like a growing number of experts in government process, Fung is an advocate of "deliberative democracy," a hybrid of direct and representative democracy in which citizens gather to establish public policy. Unlike the traditional town-meeting style of governance (often associated with New England) in which all residents are invited to debate and vote on taxes, the budget and other issues, the deliberative democracy model relies on participant assemblies, often randomly selected, which advise public officials rather than set binding policy.

During his 2008 presidential campaign, John Edwards popularized the general notion with his "Citizen Congress" proposal to regularly convene 1 million Americans in national deliberations on critical policy issues as complex and diverse as foreign relations, taxes, job creation and campaign-finance reform. The challenges of facilitating such deliberative processes are daunting, but Fung believes the very complexity of our policy issues may provide the incentive for government officials to experiment. "Let's focus on the most intractable problems — where things are broken, and we seem to make little or no progress in fixing them, like health care," Fung argues. "When nothing else seems to work, politicians might give (deliberative democracy) a try."

A few years back, British Columbia randomly selected 160 voters for a citizens' assembly that convened to recommend changes to the provincial electoral system. The recommendations were then put to voters in a binding referendum, essentially bypassing elected officials.

Similarly, a year ago, as Pennsylvania legislators considered a bill to ban same-sex marriage, Carnegie Mellon University's Southwestern Pennsylvania Program for Deliberative Democracy assembled a randomly selected group of 400 voters from around the state to research and discuss the issue. At the end of the daylong event, facilitators released a "deliberative poll" showing that 70 percent of state voters support the recognition of same-sex unions. Lawmakers rejected the same-sex marriage ban.

Fung believes such communal exercises not only produce sound policy but also reignite the citizen impulse to remain informed, concerned, engaged and trusting - the social-capital measures most in decline. In many European countries, Fung adds, governments routinely target citizen engagement and other indicators of citizenship as policy objectives. Government rarely does so here, in spite of — or perhaps due to — a belief that the gold standard of democracy is practiced in America.

Fung blames "an indifference born of complacency and self satisfaction" for the reluctance of politicians and public officials to push policies that promote civic engagement. Like automakers chasing innovations or technology companies with a constant eye on the horizon, he says, government process must evolve to reflect changing conditions — or risk losing the support of its customers.

Last May, President Obama signed a directive that was little noticed outside the beltway but applauded by those who study social capital and citizenship. With his signature, the White House Office of Public Liaison — historically, a kind of gatekeeper for interest groups seeking access to the Oval Office — became the White House Office of Public Engagement. "This office will seek to engage as many Americans as possible in the difficult work of changing this country through meetings and conversations with groups and individuals held in Washington and across the country," Obama said in a video announcement. The directive coincided with the release of his transition team's Citizen's Briefing Book — a collection of the best ideas and proposals submitted by ordinary Americans for addressing the nation's challenges.

It was not Obama's first step to re-energize citizens. In April, he signed the $6 billion Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, greatly expanding AmeriCorps and other volunteer service programs.

The extent to which Obama's programs and policies have affected citizenship in America is not clear. Typically, Smith explains, civic health declines during recessions as people hunker down, turning inward. But despite difficult economic conditions, many measures of civic health seem to be inching up. Smith stops short of attributing the findings to the Obama presidency, but he believes a canon of populist inclusivity — preached by both candidates during last year's campaign — has inspired citizens to stay informed and get involved, even after the election. "We know that Americans are eager for meaningful engagement in civic life," Smith says. "That's a very good thing. Now we need for our leaders to recognize that government can help make that happen or it can get in the way of it."

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