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What Is Citizenship, and What Fruits Can It Bear?

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

By Christopher Frank Rondinelli
March 21, 2020

In Ancient Greece, citizenship was a key aspect of daily life. Taking an active role in government was crucial to one’s standing in society. Today, citizenship carries the same importance. So, what defines citizenship? In the days of Ancient Greece, the ideology of citizenship followed the classical conception: the citizen was connected to the polis, which gave meaning to daily life. The focus was community to benefit society. Over time, a new ideology blossomed: the liberal conception of citizenship where the focus became the pursuit of self-interest to benefit society. Given the tension between these two ideologies, a recasting of the definition of citizenship is needed. Although such a definition would contain many characteristics, here the focus centers on three defining components—public participation (P2), education and community—and how they come together synergistically to support the resolution of governmental and societal issues.

P2, the cornerstone of citizenship, is defined by Tina Nabatchi as, “The activities by which people’s concerns, needs, interests and values are incorporated into decisions and actions on public matters and issues.” It can be broken into indirect and direct participation. Indirect participation covers citizens’ actions, such as voting. While these actions are critical, the focus here will be on direct means. Direct participation is divided into conventional, thin and thick participation.

Thin and thick participation define what is meant by meaningful P2. Thick participation entails groups of community members deliberating over public issues to form cognizant and cogent policies; it can be done face to face or through online platforms. It requires citizens’ efforts: the participant must actively listen, review facts and figures, and ultimately communicate with other individuals within the community to resolve issues. This can yield impactful outcomes by informing the citizen and others of the issue and generating solutions or providing an outlet to advocate for change, though this process is time intensive.

Thin participation requires less time and focuses on the individual: it can be an online poll, an informative phone call, or an e-petition. Thin participation can be used on its own or to support thick participation activities, such as educating citizens on community issues through informational emails. Clearly, these two forms of direct participation put the power in the hands of the people. They enforce that the general will of the people; as Jean-Jacques Rousseau highlights, “Is always in the right and always works for the public good.” Consequently, P2 is the bedrock of defining citizenship: it is the functional component deriving the general will of the people from which society directs and implements decisions and policies. P2 in its direct form, therefore, affords the citizen the opportunity to effectively impact government and create social change.

Although P2 is at the core of the definition of citizenship, it is education that creates, supports and enhances P2. Education in citizenship requires not only an understanding of government and its processes but also demands knowledge of the issues within the community and society. The more informed citizens become, the higher the likelihood they will act. Citizens express their self-interest by acting on the issues that are most meaningful to them, and education is the first step to fostering P2.

Education supports the cornerstone of citizenship. From this support comes action. Tina Nabatchi highlights this process; the community of Tucson, AZ was plagued with high noise pollution from the nearby airfield, but the airfield was vital to the community’s economy. The citizens nearest the airbase acted and informed the broader community of the issues at hand. A committee was formed, a resolution was reached, and a lasting committee was established. The more informed citizens are, the more power they have in the decisionmaking process. Once informed, citizens consult government, get involved and collaborate, leading to the final stage of empowerment: putting decisionmaking in the public’s hands. Empowerment enhances the outcomes and efficacy of P2; as highlighted in the Tucson study, the citizens became empowered by the change they affected and as a result, formed a more permanent committee.

Community is derived from P2 and education and, therefore, is the crowning achievement in the definition of citizenship. It is achieved via the formation and exercise of committees, a place to be welcomed and accepted while voicing one’s concerns. The pursuit of community, however, does not mean the abandonment of self-interest. Rather, it means the embracing and advocating of it. Community allows the individual to express self-interest and at the same time achieve the highest form of citizenship that has the potential to solve government and society’s issues.  

Coming together synergistically to promote the better society, the three features: P2, education, and community form the basis of a working definition of citizenship. The pursuit of the better society, however, requires hard work. To accomplish this pursuit, people will need to tune in, get up and get involved!

Author: Christopher Rondinelli is a Lieutenant in the United States Navy. He has served as a Surface Warfare Officer in Manama, Bahrain, Norfolk, Virginia, and currently Washington DC. He holds a Bachelor of Liberal Arts from Harvard University; a Master of Science in Biomedical Engineering from the University of Oxford; and a Master of Public Administration from Syracuse University.

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