We define citizen engagement as a combination of deliberation (communicating and learning about issues), collaborative action, and the working relationships that form during such interactions. We summarize a growing body of literature that finds that citizen engagement–so defined–is crucial to addressing the most stubborn social problems.
But the harder question is always: How can America get more civic engagement? Who would be motivated to expand the number and breadth of active citizens or to make their work more consequential?
In the SSIR piece, we propose one answer. Municipal governments have much to gain by enlisting more citizens in more consequential civic work. This serves their self-interest. Furthermore, many cities already have thousands of citizens involved in organized volunteering efforts. Volunteering, by itself, does not have the positive effects that we find from citizen engagement understood more broadly. But all those volunteers are expressing a willingness to take action. Municipal governments are capable of turning ordinary volunteering into opportunities for deliberation about issues, collective action, and sustained relationships (including relationships among government officials and other citizens in their communities).
One of several ways that governments can achieve this shift is by helping citizens to set measurable targets for change at the community level and providing them with the data they need to assess progress. Unpaid citizens are not responsible for achieving these outcomes on their own; they collaborate with city employees and people from other sectors and hold each other accountable.
In the article, we offer several promising examples of what we call “impact volunteering” in US cities. We highlight cases from the Cities of Service network–which I strongly endorse–but our argument is meant to apply more broadly as well.
Citation: Myung J. Lee and Peter Levine, “A New Model for Citizen Engagement,” Stanford Social Innovation Review, fall 2016, pp. 40-45.