Since you are the committee in charge of infrastructure planning in this county, I am convinced that this presentation on the role of civic engagement in such planning will be of great interest. I work in the department of Planning in the City manager’s office as an administration officer. I shall go about my presentation in three schedules. First I shall explain what civic engagement is and its importance in governance. Secondly, I shall talk about ways of achieving it. In conclusion, I shall explore the question whether democracy is at risk.
I begin with an explanation of civic engagement. Civic engagement refers to any individual and collective activity that is geared towards influencing the collective life of the citizen. It is informed by a sense of duty on the part of the citizen to participate in public decision making. It can range from seeking information on particular candidates, voting, supporting a cause, building a network, supporting or opposing a policy or a program among other activities. Civic awareness and education is critical for effective and efficient civic engagement. It encompasses several and broad activities and positions that citizen concern themselves with to enhance public involvement. Participating in processes to consider whether government should initiate a program and in what way, is a facet of civic engagement. Yet, this noble concept cannot be wished in any country that prides itself in democratic governance. Democracy is a government by the people, of the people and for the people. Consequently, there can never be any other plausible explanation of the democracy concept if citizen participation in public affairs is absent. This problem is what is sought to be cured by the promotion of civic engagement. In this instance, a county government is seeking to draw up a long term development blueprint in terms of infrastructure. The administration is therefore bound to engage the consumers of such a project, who provide the funding for such projects through paying taxes. As a consequence, we must ensure the public participate.
Next, I consider the importance of civic engagement in a country or in governance. One of the most important roles of civic engagement is enhancing legitimacy of the programs and policies undertaken by the government. Decisions that are arrived at, following deliberations and the engagement with citizens are seen to be legitimate in the eyes of the public. Nevertheless, these decisions will only be deemed so if they are reached, in an open, equitable and inclusive process of civic engagement. The vitality of legitimacy among citizens cannot be gainsaid. A lack of legitimacy of programs, policies or even laws could result to unwilling citizens, recalcitrant in obeying the very laws or cooperating in joint projects in the community.
I would also wish to make it clear that Civic engagement is a key component of good governance in a society. In a number of spheres, citizens are usually more knowledgeable in comparison to the leaders. In areas such as infrastructure, education, health, environment, the public usually understand the shortfall in the sector more than the leaders hence the need to involve them in such programs. A citizen interacting daily with public transport, dispensaries, forests and schools is better placed to explain what needs and needs not to be done. The upshot of civic engagement in a community is therefore enabling informed decision. An informed decision is bound to bring more value to the society and consequently promote good governance.
I would add that decisions reached through dialogue with the public are consensus-based. These thereby represent a shared view of both the problem and the solution. The administration will therefore stand to benefit from a rich array of the public views and also reduce the rift that could otherwise accrue. It is also a fact that decisions emanating from public forums generate more support from the public as they resonate with them. They have a feeling that their input is valued and thus get motivated to engage even the more in participatory governance. This in turn promotes democratic ideals that are a huge component of good governance. There emerges trust in government and the administration and evokes greater enthusiasm in political processes.
Having highlighted the advantages that flow from civic engagement, I now turn to the elements of this concept. The first vexing issue we ask ourselves is whether there is need to hold a public forum in order to engage with the citizenry. In this instance where a 20 year infrastructure plan is being drawn, it is imperative to explore ways of collecting and collating view of the public so as to embody them in the plan. Is there a need to hold the traditional public hearing and comment process or is there a need to hold a more deliberative public forum? A deliberative public forum will be useful especially where broad public understanding and support is required to win acceptance for the solutions or programs advanced. The same forum will be crucial in the event the issue at hand is controversial and the solution appears to be outside the confines of the stakeholders.
Second is the consideration of the issue as to whether the administration seeks to ask of the public or persuade them on a program or policy. Persuasion would be in the event the decision has already been made and approval is being sought. Also, it has to be borne in mind whether resources and time or holding such forums is available and plan accordingly. It is my view that in this instance, we should and are asking of the public. It is also necessary to examine if the support for the project from the political leaders is needed to facilitate its implementation. My feeling is that it is needed to enhance political goodwill..
The communication strategy that we should employ is also of paramount importance. The public, institutions and the community at large need to be informed of this project. The awareness amongst civic groups and the private sector will help boost the project. Is democracy at risk?
Having seen that citizen engagement is a must for a stable democracy, the question then becomes, is democracy in our country at risk? In answer to this question, it will be necessary to examine the level of civic engagement in the country so as to determine whether democracy is threatened. There has been erosion in the level of engagement in political activities by Americans in the recent past. People are less conversant about the political ongoings, the more educated are less involved in politics, volunteering in campaigns and involvement in protests is hitting a bottom low. Disenfranchisement of especially vulnerable groups such as the youth, women and the poor persists in terms of civic engagement. There has also been a decline in voter turnout in elections as well as civic courses taught in schools. All these indicators among others show a decreasing level of civic engagement that puts democracy on the backburner. It may well be said that democracy is now at risk, in view of the foregoing.
What could be done to increase the level of civic engagement and consequently uphold democratic ideals? One may include expanding local media initiatives so as to reflect the reality of the communities they represent. There is also need to ensure every local community has at least one high quality online hub for interaction. The young people need to be engaged in developing the digital information and use the social networking sites such as Twitter. This could be enabled by ensuring civic issues are debated in such forums. All citizens should be empowered to participate actively in community self-governance including local community summits so as to address the goals of the community.
It is apparent that the country suffers from mass voter apathy during elections. People are less engaged and are hesitant or indifferent to the political activities. This could point to a possible dysfunction with our political system and institutions. There is therefore need to improve our political institutions and practices that turn the citizens away from the scene.
Also, noting that disadvantaged groups like the youth, the poor and women are the most disenfranchised in this respect, it would be necessary to take care of them. One of the ways would be to revive the study of civic courses in schools, conduct more robust civic education and eliminate the long and tedious voting process. The lack of competitiveness in politics owing to the weak system could also frustrate people thus taking away the enthusiasm that would otherwise result in a competitive environment. The quantity and quality of civic engagement need be well considered if the country is to gain the ground it has lost.
In addition, the engagement must have equality to ensure all groups have the capacity to contribute to their own governance-a key tenet of democracy. Let us join forces, engage the public and uphold good governance. I thank you all for the patience.
Macedo, S., & Brintnall, M. (2004). Democracy at Risk: Renewing the Political Science of Ctizenship. Chicago: American Political Science Association .
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Rourke, J. T. (2011). You Decide! 2012: Current Debates in American Politics. New York: Prentice Hall.