Civic Engagement

Civic engagement is the commitment of individuals, organizations, and communities to address social and political issues facing society. It is related to civic participation, but that term refers to a range of activities; as such, civic participation may be considered the manifestation of civic engagement. Civic engagement, a hallmark of democratic governance, ranges from involvement in political activities such as voting, to community involvement in neighborhood activities and the nonprofit sector, to membership in civic associations or clubs. Peter Levine finds the common thread in this range as actions that affect “legitimately public matters (even if selfishly motivated) as long as the actor pays appropriate attention to the consequences of his behavior for the underlying political system. In turn, ‘public matters’ include the commons, the distribution of goods in a society, and all the laws and social norms that prohibit or discourage particular behaviors” ( 2007, 13 ).

In the American system, civic engagement is considered a core value that is open to all persons. Freedom of association—the ability of individuals to freely join or leave groups—is protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution. In NAACP v. Alabama, 357 U.S. 449 ( 1958 ), the US Supreme Court considered group association to enhance the effective advocacy of public and private points of view. Other political forms of civic engagement are rights specifically designated to citizens: namely, voting for candidates for elected government office, holding such office, and serving on a jury.

Although scholarship relating to civic engagement reached a high-water mark in the 1990s and early 2000s, with convergence around a general definition of civic engagement, disagreement remains among scholars and practitioners about how to operationalize the concept. Most agree, however, that civic engagement has both a political component and a civil society component.


Zukin et al. 2006; Levine 2007 ).

A University of Northern Iowa student casts her vote, September 28, 2011.

A University of Northern Iowa student casts her vote, September 28, 2011.

Relating to civil society, civic engagement is typically organized around membership in civic associations. These associations are of several types: affinity groups (e.g., sports clubs, ethnic heritage groups, or choral groups); service organizations, such as a local Rotary Club; work-related associations (e.g., professional and labor); the associative side of interest groups such as environmental organizations; and cooperatives and neighborhood associations. Robert Putnam ( 1993 ) presents these civic associations as “networks of civic engagement” that seek to discourage free-riding and defection, foster norms of reciprocity ( Ostrom 1990 ), facilitate communication, improve the flow of information ( Coleman 1990 ), and provide templates for future engagement ( North 1990 ). In a nation of joiners, one has only to identify a shared interest to find civic associations formed to pursue that interest.

In addition to activities related to membership in civic groups, volunteering and philanthropic activity are also considered important indicators of civic engagement. Others suggest that pursuing knowledge and “cognitive engagement” (e.g., attending public lectures) may also be important dimensions of civic engagement ( Levine 2007 ).


In 1953 Congress chartered the National Conference on Citizenship “to strengthen civic life in America.” Its activities include a civic health initiative, a national community-service project, and a series of annual conferences. The Civic Health Index (CHI), jointly tracked by the National Conference on Citizenship and the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), is considered to be a useful metric. The CHI tracks indicators measuring the levels of trust, involvement, and interactions with government within communities. The CHI has been primarily tracked at the national level, although it is also measured at the state and local levels. Indicators of civic health include social connection, political action, belonging to a group, volunteering, and working with neighbors. Longitudinal analysis reveals that the CHI has been declining since 1975 ( NCOC 2006 ).

Relating to community civic engagement, the CNCS is a quasi-governmental federal agency that promotes and tracks voluntarism throughout the nation through such programs as AmeriCorps, Senior Corps, and the Social Innovation Fund. AmeriCorps is a national service program that provides roughly 80,000 opportunities each year for individuals to serve their country and communities. Full-time positions require members to perform 1,700 hours of service over the course of a year in exchange for a modest living stipend and an education award. AmeriCorps members are paired with nonprofit organizations, schools, public agencies, community groups, and faith-based groups throughout the United States. Senior Corps programs aim to keep American citizens fifty-five and older engaged through volunteer service, contributing their knowledge and skills to community organizations. The Social Innovation Fund, started in 2010, is an effort by CNCS to leverage private funds to generate meaningful impacts in communities. The Fund emphasizes cross-sector partnerships, innovation, and rigorous impact evaluation.

Additionally, every state and most US territories have established offices and commissions to promote service and voluntarism at the state and local levels. Locally, many nonprofit organizations, such as the United Way, serve to connect citizens to service opportunities.

Civic education also plays an important role in developing a civically engaged citizenry. Most school districts and states require some form of civic education that is designed to instill a lifelong sense of civic engagement in students. The type, frequency, and intensity of K–12 civic education varies by state but is generally in decline nationwide. Additionally, many K–12 schools and universities now require students to complete service-learning projects, where students work with local public and nonprofit agencies to engage in active learning while producing public value. Informally, politicians, public administrators, and community leaders extol the virtues of community service. Family and religious socialization are also important agents of civic development. In this century the White House has developed an office aimed at expanding the role of community and religious groups in the provision of social service. In 2001 President George W. Bush established the office of faith-based initiatives and community initiatives, which expanded religious groups' access to federal grant money and government contracts through competitive processes. Under President Barack Obama, the scope of this office extended to include neighborhood partnerships.


Since the founding of the Republic, civic engagement has been seen as critical to the health and development of democratic institutions in the United States. Early colonists who did not have access to centralized and organized government services relied on civic institutions for survival, economic opportunity, and socialization. Although these traditions of civic engagement have largely endured, Americans today appear to be less civically engaged than in the past.

Civic engagement has roots in political science and public administration scholarship, where citizens are considered to be integral to policy making and administrative processes. Specific civic engagement-related policy making concepts include discursive policy making ( Habermas 1996; deLeon 1997; Macedo 2005 ) and deliberative democracy ( Dryzek 2000 ), which emphasize discussion and deliberation in the decision-making processes. Similarly, participatory management ( Barber 1984 ) is the process of incorporating community members into the administration of public goods and services. These democratic policy and management concepts were popularized during the 1990s and have become subjects of renewed interest within the field of public administration.

While civic engagement undergirds many American democratic traditions and institutions, the definition and conception of civic engagement has evolved over time. Civic engagement in early America was often local, with most individuals participating at the community level either through deliberative discourse or participation in civic associations. At the same time, there were national federated organizations, such as the Freemasons, Odd Fellows, and American Temperance Society, with members organized in local, state, and national chapters. Similarly organized was the first American political movement, the independence movement.

1805–1859 ). Tocqueville's Democracy in America ( 1835, 1840 ) celebrated civic engagement in America and attributed the strength of the social fabric to high rates of citizen participation in voluntary associations, the presence of strong religious institutions, norms of reciprocity, and decentralized governance structures. Tocqueville was interested in explaining America's successful democratic experience and found that individual participation in civil society strengthened democratic institutions. Subsequent studies of American civic life have focused on the United States as a “nation of joiners” ( Schlesinger 1944; Almond and Verba 1963 ) and an “unusually participatory democracy” ( Skocpol and Fiorina 1999 ).

Trust in democratic institutions eroded in the 1970s as the fallout from the Watergate scandal undermined American's confidence in government. Coupled with the civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement, and the environmental movement, post-Watergate sentiments witnessed a phase of civic engagement as civic protest and policy advocacy.

In the years leading up to the twenty-first century, Theda Skocpol and others saw a danger of civic disengagement in this period as membership organizations declined and specialized advocacy groups emerged with small professional staffs and no members. In 1997 the National Commission on Civic Renewal issued a final report titled, A Nation of Spectators: How Civic Disengagement Weakens America and What We Can Do about It. Robert Putnam ( 2000 ) argued that civic disengagement was eroding social capital, a term he used to describe the value of social networks and the norms of reciprocity they produce. He found that Americans were participating in traditional civic associations like bowling leagues at much lower rates than before and were now “bowling alone.” Putnam concluded that the proliferation of technology was likely a major driver of this rapid decline ( Putnam 2000 ).

The Millennial Generation ( born between 1980 and 2000 ) has been participating in political activity at lower rates than the national average, as has been common with younger generations (including Generation X). Millennials, however, have been highly active in other forms of civic engagement, such as volunteering, being active in their communities, and participating in economic protests using consumerism as a vehicle ( Zukin et al. 2006; Dalton 2008 ). As institution builders in their youth, they founded technology, communications, and nonprofit service organizations. Generational historians regard them as the next “civic generation,” akin to the GI generation ( born between 1900 and 1925 ).


One set of contemporary civic engagement issues includes the effects of technology, in particular the Internet and social media, on civic engagement, as well as the digital divide and the inability of some citizens to access online content or participate in online discussions. Another set of issues has to do with the role of national, state, and local service programs, such as AmeriCorps, in providing opportunities for Americans to serve their communities in meaningful ways and reengage in a nation of joiners. A third set of issues occurs within a polarizing political climate and includes the effect on campaign-finance transparency of the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 310 ( 2010 ), which protects the freedom of speech of corporations, associations, and labor unions and eliminates campaign donation limitations.

Additionally, as technology makes communication faster and easier, public participation in administrative decision-making processes, largely circumventing elected representatives, will likely be an important issue. For agencies or organizations to engage in public participation, they should inform the public, listen to the public, engage in problem solving, and develop agreements ( Creighton 2005 ).

Finally, political forces contend over the barriers to voting. Some seek to ease participation through early voting, mail-in ballots, and online voting. Others look to protect elections from fraud by implementing voteridentification laws.


Civic engagement is of paramount importance to American governance. A basic tenet of effective governance is an informed and participatory decision-making body. Civic engagement is the way by which citizens learn about their communities, build social capital, and participate in political processes. As individuals volunteer and join civic groups, they gain a better, more complete understanding of the issues affecting their communities and are more likely to participate in finding solutions. Similarly, as individuals participate in political processes such as voting and advocating policy makers, they are likely to become more informed about public policies and programs and will be better able to provide citizen oversight through democratic means. Finally, communities with strong social ties and high levels of trust are likely to have stronger and more stable decision-making processes where participants respect the outcomes and more readily buy into the implementation of decisions. Without a civically engaged citizenry, these strong democratic institutions and American governance processes will be undermined.

SEE ALSO Bowling Alone ; Civic Health Index ; Civic Participation ; Civil Disobedience .


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Kevin D. Ward
Institute of Public Service Seattle University