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All Hands on Deck: A Clarion Call for Civic Service

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Tom R. Hulst
August 22, 2021

The nation has recently experienced a searing and resounding wake-up call. Free and open elections are under attack. Constitutional principles and processes have been assaulted. Civility and comity have been upended. Recent events have ignited a shift from democratic to authoritarian values and put American democracy in peril. We can no longer take our vital institutions and basic freedoms for granted.

David Matthews of the Kettering Foundation recently wrote in the Civic Review, “Citizens must have more than voices petitioning others to act for them. They have to have hands—their hands—working together with one another and with their institutions to make things for the good of all.” The nation’s leaders must apply a “full-court-press” to re-instill public virtue, political integrity and civic engagement. One of the ways to raise, “Hands working together,” is to enact bold policy initiatives to increase the number of citizens—especially young people—engaged in civic service.

Brief History of Civic Service

The United States has a rich history of citizen service to the nation. President Roosevelt launched the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a public work relief program for unemployed young men in 1933. Three million individuals were engaged in the CCC over a nine-year period. Every president since John F. Kennedy—who initiated the Peace Corps—has proposed enhancements to civic service programs. President Lyndon Johnson initiated Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA). President H.W. Bush created the Commission on National and Community Service in 1990. In 1993 President Clinton inaugurated AmeriCorps as part of the National and Community Service Trust Act. The Serve America Act, signed into law by President Obama in 2009, increased the numbers of volunteers and expanded service-learning placements for a wider age-span of students. In 2017 President Trump and Congress authorized the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service. The Commission issued its final report in March 2020 entitled Inspired to Serve. It contains recommendations worthy of review by public administrators and can be accessed here.

Research on Civic Service

The Special Issue of the PAR, Looking into the Future of Public Administration, December 2010, contains two articles on civic service. Rebecca Nesbit and Jeffrey Brudney provide an excellent summary of the research into youth service in, “At your Service? Volunteering and National Service in 2020.” The authors report on assessments of young people who participated in AmeriCorps since 1994. An abstract of their research shows that AmeriCorps alumni demonstrated:

  • “High levels of volunteering, voting and political engagement.”
  • Higher propensity to engage in community groups, attend public meetings and value freedom and equality.”
  • “More likelihood to volunteer after their service ended than the comparison group.”

 The authors also summarize research concerning students who participated in service-learning during their K-12 experience. These individuals demonstrated:

  • “Increases in political efficacy, civic responsibility and understanding of politics.”
  • “Tolerance of and favorable attitudes toward others.”
  • “Gains in prosocial reasoning, decisionmaking and responsibility.”
  • “Positive impacts on civic attitudes, personal development and participatory behaviors.”

The research completed in the last decades demonstrate that civic service provides substantial benefits for the participant, communities and the body politic.

Strategic Path Forward for Civic Service

Inspired to Serve noted, “[W]hen 22% of American adults cannot name any of the three branches of government, it is well past time for the country to take action.” The report also commented on, “The lack of exposure to high-quality civic education throughout much of the Nation.” This finding is not new. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor launched iCivics before she died because she shared the same concern about the need for better civic education. Since its inception, iCivics has provided free curriculum resources to more than 7.6 million students around the country. Civic education should not be taught, however, in hermetically sealed classrooms separate and apart from the real world. It should be thoughtfully and meticulously linked to civic service—practical activities that have an indelible impact on the participant—and foster political harmony in the nation. The Commission concluded that the United States must, “Prioritize robust civic education and academically relevant, high-quality service learning at all levels of education.” It also declared, “That cultivating America’s culture of service calls for action by all parts of American society—Congress and the President, state, local and tribal governments, nongovernmental organizations and the American people.”

While the Commission supports the value of service to the nation, it ultimately determined, “That policymakers should promote voluntary approaches to service, reserving mandatory service as a last resort only in response to national emergencies.” If this report were issued in March 2021—in the aftermath of January 6—instead of March 2020, the Commission may have articulated a bolder recommendation concerning mandatory service. Perhaps Congress will give serious consideration to required national service; or at least provide sweeping and creative incentives to attract young people to this high calling.

Widespread civic service is a crucial policy proposal for the nation’s future. Since it will likely receive renewed stimulus, public administrators should provide clear-eyed vision, bold leadership, and all hands-on deck for this initiative in the coming years.  


Author: Tom R. Hulst received an MA in public administration from Washington State University, was policy advisor to Governor Daniel Evans, administrator in the State Office of Public Instruction, and superintendent of Peninsula School District. He published “The Footpaths of Justice William O. Douglas” in 2004, been a long time ASPA member, and currently teaches political science at Tacoma Community College. 

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @thulstlivecom

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