public work in Massachusetts (and the nation)

Our colleagues at Harvard’s Institute of Politics and the National Conference on Citizenship recently released a report on the civic health of Massachusetts. My organization, CIRCLE, did much of the underlying statistical analysis, although the Harvard team of students deserve full credit for the report and its argument.

One aspect we contributed was the suggestion that “public work” could be measured by identifying individuals who say they both attend public meetings and “work with neighbors to fix or improve something.” Our idea is that people should talk and listen with peers and act, letting their conversations guide their actions and their practical experience inform their discussions. Deliberation without work is empty, but work without deliberation is blind.

Using our definition, the report finds that 5.7% of Massachusetts residents do public work. Our measure is obviously imperfect. Leaving aside the usual problems of biased survey responses, this is an imperfect measure because you could attend meetings that had nothing to do with your working with neighbors. Or you could do real public work outside your neighborhood.

Nevertheless, I believe it’s a useful proxy measure for comparison purposes. The rate in Massachusetts is a full percentage point greater than the national rate (4.7%). Particular groups are more or less involved. For example, Native Americans are nationally the most likely group to meet the definition, perhaps because of traditions of collaborate governance. Public work (as we define it) correlates with education, so that 10% of Massachusetts college graduates participate, but no one in the Massachusetts sample who had less than a high school diploma met the definition.

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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.