new federal measures of civic engagement

Formal systems, such as governments, tend to measure what they value. Thus I take it as a good sign that the federal government has been gradually expanding the forms of civic engagement that it measures regularly through the Census Bureau’s annual Current Population Supplement survey.

Voting intrinsically involves counting, so we have turnout statistics going back to George Washington. The Census asked about volunteering in 1974 and 1988 and has fielded an annual measure of volunteering since 2002. With the passage of the Kennedy Serve America Act in 2009, the Census was required to ask about more forms of engagement and has added measures of group membership, meeting attendance, media use, boycotting products, and communicating with friends and family, among others. Now, according to our friends at the National Conference on Citizenship, the Census is adding:

  • Voting in local elections (such as mayor or school board)
  • Using the internet to express opinions about political or community issues
  • Communicating with family and friends
  • Trust in neighbors
  • Confidence in corporations, the media and public schools

These measures are very helpful for tracking civic engagement in the nation and communities and for other research efforts, such as our study that linked engagement to employment. But many other outcomes could be measured, in principle:

  • Civic skills
  • Changes in young people’s civic knowledge, skills, and interests. (Civic measures have been included on federal longitudinal surveys, but not recently)
  • Jobs that have civic or service aspects
  • Positive interactions between governments and citizens, e.g., in good community policing or participatory planning
  • Intensive and personal forms of philanthropy, such as sheltering and feeding non-family in one’s home
  • Non-compliance, foot-dragging, and the other strategies of dissent that James C. Scott has argued are the tools of the world’s poor

I certainly don’t expect the federal government to measure all of the above, but even if the government measures valuable things, we should care about more than what is measured.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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