Civic Awareness Month, which occurs in September, reminds us of the importance of an educated and engaged citizenry. “Awareness” implies an understanding of the issues affecting civic life. For local governments, that understanding enables the type of civic discourse that solves problems, not the ugly confrontations described in a recent Washington Post article with the headline “The age of the earful: America’s town halls are less about civil discourse as discord rules the day.”
Undoubtedly our country is facing many challenges—the economic crisis, terrorism, manmade and natural disasters—some of which people react to with fear, anger, and a sense of loss of control. If citizens can participate in solving problems at the local level, they can regain a sense of stability and trust in the process of good government. The ability to participate in solving problems depends on citizens’ understanding of the complex issues facing our communities and their leaders.
Many local governments have formal programs to educate citizens about how their local government functions and what the various departments do and the challenges they face. Often called Neighborhood Leadership Institutes, such as the Neighborhood Leadership Institute: Leadership and Development Course offered by the city of Virginia Beach, Virginia, or Citizen Academies, like the one offered by the town of Cary, North Carolina, these popular programs enable citizens to participate with a level of competency. If citizens are acquiring most of their information in sound bites or angry talk radio, they will be ill-equipped to contribute to solving some of the very problems causing them distress.
During the fiscal crisis that began in December 2007, local governments began engaging citizens in the budget process, so they could understand the difficult financial issues confronting their elected and appointed leaders and could make their desires known when questions arose about the need to reduce services or layoff staff. By educating citizens during the budget process, local governments were able to engage citizens about the tradeoffs and the implications of budget decisions. By participating in that process, even though they may be unhappy with the outcome, citizens understood the rationale. The problem-solving was participatory; the discourse was civil.
We live in a representative democracy with local leaders elected to represent our needs and desires in setting policies and direction for our communities. By educating citizens, local governments not only strengthen the ability of citizens to participate in solving community problems, but also to elect leaders whom they believe can represent their concerns, thus reducing some of the fear, anger, and sense of loss of control. A well-know TV ad refers to an educated consumer as the best customer. For local governments and their citizens, an educated citizenry may be their most valuable asset.
The Local Government Knowledge Network, created by ICMA, the Alliance for Innovation, and the Arizona State University School of Public Affairs, has examples of many programs local governments have implemented to increase citizen awareness, education, and engagement. Visit the Knowledge Network and browse the citizen engagement, citizen education, and citizen academies topic pages to see if there are programs you might want to introduce in your community.