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Increasing Civic Participation

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

By William C. Simonson
June 3, 2016

Low levels of civic participation are cause for concern among scholars, public administrators and nonprofit professionals. The decentralization of many government social welfare programs has increased the need for an active nonprofit sector. These organizations now represent an important group of third party service providers. Contemporary theories suggest that the nonprofit sector can widen democratic participation and create healthier communities through collaborative processes.

silhouettes-1186995_640It is important to remember that as a democracy we should encourage participation in this process. Participating in a free and open society is a privilege much of the world’s population does not enjoy. Yet, recent surveys found participation to be lowest among nonwhites, immigrants, youth and ethnic-minorities. It is unfortunate that many Americans do not take a more active part in this process.

There are many debates about how and why civic participation is down, which many scholars consider to be a significant problem. A prevailing theory, among several scholars and practitioners, is that this decline can be reversed by increasing citizen participation in community programs. Fundamental to these efforts is the role of nonprofits in enacting community engagement practices at the local level.

Although studies of the organizational effects on public participation have demonstrated that civic engagement is a difficult process, it remains very important. In fact, many social welfare organizations are engaged in significant civic practices on a daily basis. Homeless shelters, food pantries and halfway houses are just a few of the organizations that offer avenues for participation. Organizations gathering marginalized people around a singular cause, such as HIV/AIDS treatment and LGBTQ populations, have made great progress in the last 20 years in advancing their cause. Members of these organizations can develop a sense of community and, more importantly, create a safe space for them to gather.

Dr. Mary L. Ohmer’s study, “Citizen Participation in Neighborhood Organizations and Its Relationship to Volunteers’ Self- and Collective Efficacy and Sense of Community,” published in the journal Social Work Research, found that residents who participated in community organizations were more likely to have an increased sense of community, gained problem-solving skills and were often involved in leadership and decisionmaking positions. Citizens who had been involved in the decisionmaking process were found to have as much as a 30 percent higher gain in skills and knowledge. By being a part of these small communal organizations residents felt closer to their community and were more likely to engage in activities to help the public good. Residents who participated in these organizations would be more likely to become involved if they saw children skipping school or if the local firehouse was facing budget cuts.

In 1997, the Aspen Institute put together a nonprofit strategy group of professionals, scholars, business leaders and government members. Participants were asked to discuss the importance of nonprofits and civil society. There was a general agreement among members that nonprofits have the ability to widen the democratic process, increase civic skills, and increase the public’s base of knowledge.

Public managers can employ these practices as well. City administrators, the mayor of Lynchburg, Virginia, along with community leaders, have utilized a more participatory form of governance. Through the use of small community discussions and open-ended dialogues, members of the public have convened on the issues of racism, public education and crime. In less than two years, more than 1,300 people had participated. This program has since evolved into an ongoing and self-sustaining organization known as “Many Voices One Community.” In an interview with the Boston Review, Lynchburg City Manager Kimball Payne was quoted as saying:

“I would say that for one thing we hear from people who we wouldn’t normally hear from. I’m thinking particularly about our budget processes. The recession really got us focused on the budget.[We] did a series of community outreach initiatives over several years [and] got input from people who wouldn’t normally stand up in front of a large group and speak. Through this process we actually got the community to support a tax increase […] in an election year.”

In order to include the most disadvantaged in society, nonprofits must continue to collaborate with citizens. It is a long, slow process that takes time and commitment from nonprofit administrators. This type of deliberation necessitates a commitment to the ideals of collaboration, equality and diversity. These initiatives must be affordable to residents and be easily accessible, especially for older volunteers. Stakeholders must be connected at every step of the process. It is not enough to hold a public hearing; citizens must have a voice in the discussion. Overall, studies shows that social service nonprofits and smaller more community based nonprofits appear well equipped to do this.

No process is perfect. This is not an easy task and many problems can arise. Administrators should not merely create meetings, but instead seek to promote a culture of public problem-solving. Operations can be successful when citizens are setting the agenda. Communities can prosper when they seek to widen engagement. By working with people from different backgrounds and differing opinions, you can raise mutual respect with the hope of working toward the common good.

Author: William C. Simonson, MPA 2016, West Chester University, received an award for his associated paper, “W. Simonson CPAASPA MPA Student Paper Submission,” from ASPA’s Central PA Chapter during Public Service Recognition Week 2016. He may be reached at [email protected].

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