Why is Civic Engagement Important?

March 3, 2013 | Civic Engagement, Stakeholder Engagement

Involving the community in the decisions of government can seem daunting. It adds another layer to the already complicated and slow-moving process of bureaucracy, to say nothing of the time and resources required to plan, design and implement the process. For administrators that are already balancing the needs, wants, and constraints of multiple internal departments, the inclusion of input from external groups can appear at best unwieldy and at worst completely untenable. That is without even addressing the squishy definition of ‘community’, who gets a voice, and how much sway those voices have.

We will delve into those topics in the coming weeks as we explore the ‘how’s and ‘when’s of community engagement in public decision making. Today, let’s set those quandaries to the side for a moment and focus on the fundamental question of ‘why’. If we do not know why engaging the community in decisions is important, how can we ever hope to overcome the milieu of decision-making inertia?

Bottom line, civic engagement is important for two main reasons:

  1. It is a core principle of democracy
  2. It actually leads to more efficient and effective decisions

Democracy and Community

In the U.S., our political framework requires citizens be involved, informed and engaged. A ‘government of the people’ cannot function if there are no avenues for civic involvement, no methods for community deliberation, or no opportunities to influence government decisions.  Elections, petitions, and public deliberation are all a form of civic participation. It is the role of the people to exercise these rights to participate, and the responsibility of the government to respond and respect them.

Experts Versus the Crowd

There is a persistent “expert-bias” in decision-making. The general intuition being that those who are steeped in the subject matter will make more informed decisions than say, a random group of strangers. Some parts of this assumption are correct, most importantly that having access to quality information is key in decision-making. However, it has been shown time and time again that crowds make smarter decisions than experts, given the right conditions.

Inclusion, Diversity and Information

For a civic engagement process to get the full benefit of group wisdom, The Wisdom of Crowds author, James Surowiecki, lays out four requirements:

1. There must be diversity – the best decisions come from difference and deliberation, not immediate agreement and homogeneity.

2. There must be room for independent thought and opinion – individuals need to have access to unbiased information and data to form their own opinions.

3. The group should be inclusive – individuals bring with them specialized knowledge from their experiences. When a section of the community is missing from the table a big chunk of information is also missing.

4. There must be a mechanism for aggregating individual input into a collective decision

When community engagement processes are able to meet these benchmarks, creative solutions with community buy-in for implementation are the result, often meaning more vibrant, resilient and sustainable communities. In fact, a recent poll by the American Planning Association showed that 75% of respondents agree that, “Engaging citizens through local planning is essential to rebuilding local economies, creating jobs and improving people’s lives.”

The Power of Community

The vibrancy of our communities is inextricably tied to the health of the opportunities for deliberation and dialogue. Civic engagement is an essential ingredient in democracy and the key to making smart, creative decisions that allow communities to flourish today and excel at the challenges of tomorrow. So how can the power of community be used to make smarter decisions for the future? First, we have to focus on strengthening the connective tissue of communities.

Democracy is played out at the small scale, every day, in communities across the country. In the landmark book, Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam draws a connection between the strength of community ties and the health of American democracy. He calls on all of us to “reinvent America civically” by creating more opportunities for people of different backgrounds to connect and engage in dialogue.

How we do that is the topic for the next post in this series! If you have some thoughts on this topic, leave a comment below.