Overview of Theory & Practice

Civic engagement is a prominent issue for community organizations and government— including municipal governments—in the 21st century.(1) Meaningful and effective community consultation and participation are critical for local governments and community organizations, along with the need for supports for capacity building, strengthening partnerships, and on- going evaluation.(2) In increasingly complex times, there is a need to examine critically the ways that organizations have been involved in engaging citizens and reaching out to increase membership. Although challenges are prevalent and are frequently discussed in popular discourse—challenges including polarization and conflict over issues, diversity and inclusion, advocacy vs engagement, and questions of representation—there is a gap in identifying foundations of some of these critical issues, and potential strategies to address them.(3)

‘Civic Renewal’ and New Opportunities to Engage

With increased understanding of the importance of engaging the public, local community leaders and municipal decision-makers are more frequently seeking input from community members.(4) This means that there are increasing opportunities for citizens to engage and provide input through their neighbourhood associations and community leagues.

Scholars and innovators have called for a “civic renewal” where organizations and governments “invest in civic skills and organizational capacities for public problem-solving on a wide scale” including “…policy design and attention to systems that support democratic processes.”(5) As Gibson emphasizes, “civic engagement requires broad civic renewal that works across a wide variety of sectors, populations, initiatives, and fields to revitalize our democracy.” Democratic renewal requires moving beyond the ‘tactics’ of civic engagement like voting, volunteering, and outcomes, to focus attention on the process of civic engagement.(6) Critical factors in this process include an exploration of the motivation or incentive for ordinary people to come together to deliberate and take action on problems or issues that they themselves have identified as important, and to take action in ways that they consider appropriate. These actions may involve volunteering, voting, activism, or organizing. A citizen-created cultural shift is a powerful way to conceptualize and operationalize civic engagement.(7) Rather than ask people to “plug into” existing pre-determined programs, initiatives or campaigns, citizen centered approaches help people form and promote their own views and influence decisions, build capacity and develop open-ended civic processes.(8)

Key Organizations to Explore Public Involvement and Engagement

Involve UK conducts research into and delivers training on public participation, engagement and dialogue.

The International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) provides learning opportunities and technical assistance, international advocacy, results-based research, and an online resource section offering a wealth of information for practitioners and other interested parties.

The Deliberative Democracy Consortium works to share information, build knowledge through research, and promote a strong citizen voice in government decisions via networking and online tools for engagement.

Participedia is a wiki-based platform tool for strengthening democracy with user-generated articles that describe and assess participatory processes throughout the world, including information on organizations, case studies and methods from around the globe.

Active Democracy, provides easy access to highly readable information for individuals, groups and organizations to use to enhance citizens’ involvement in all levels of government.

The Kettering Foundation explores options for making democracy work as it should, providing easy access to strategies that people can use to address different problems in their community and at a national level.

The Canadian Community for Dialogue and Deliberation brings together practitioners, policy makers, students, researchers, and community members to discuss challenging issues, enhance decision making and form collaborative actions.

Everyday Democracy provides a wealth of information on methods and community issues for practitioners, community members and decision-makers alike.

Footnotes: 1 Sharp and Anderson (2010);2 Sharp and Anderson (2010), information interviews with local organizations.;3 See Nabatchi (2012) for various authors’ work on these issues.;4 Bradford (2005);5 Gibson (2004); Harwood (2004), p. 2 in the Case Foundation “Citizens at the Centre: A new approach to civic engagement” research report.; 6 Gibson (2004); 7 Gibson (2004), p. 2; 8 Gibson (2004), p. 2