Building democracy starts with monitoring civic health
Moore-Vissing is Associate Director of National Engagement at Public agenda, a non-profit, non-partisan organization focused on strengthening democracy, building trust and expanding economic opportunity. This is the third in an occasional series.
The events of the past year – including the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter protests, and the insurgency on Capitol Hill – have shown our nation what happens when we fail to address civic challenges or risk factors.
Similar to a dry forest that can become ignited by a small spark, when we are not paying attention to threats to our civic health, an incident can set off a series of chain reactions. For example, the public’s lack of trust in government, which has been declining for some time, has helped prolong the pandemic in a number of ways, including people’s reluctance to wear face masks or get vaccinated.
When our civic health is strong, communities are less polarized and people are physically healthier, safer and more resilient in times of crisis. Understanding what makes civic health work well and poorly is essential to sustaining a strong and functioning democracy.
How do we measure civic health? There are multiple factors that facilitate healthy or unhealthy civic life – especially if people vote, talk with their neighbors, and trust their government. Why are some communities very united, while in others people hardly speak to each other? Or why do some communities respond well to crises, with crowds of people helping to cope with tragedies or natural disasters, while others lack the “power of the people” and networks to respond effectively?
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My organization is exploring how to measure these things. Like checks in the doctor’s office, regular “civic health” assessments are essential. By collecting data in a geographic area, we can better understand civic assets, risk factors, and what we can do about them.
Currently, the primary way to measure civic health is through data from the Current Population Survey, a monthly Census Bureau survey of approximately 60,000 households. The National Citizenship Conference is currently working with states across the country to create “civic health indices,” pulling civic engagement data summaries and polling supplements from the survey.
But Census Bureau data is limited to measure civic health in three important ways.
It only provides a state-level picture, so it is not possible to compare what is happening in different parts of the same state. While the survey measures civic actions such as voting or volunteering, it does not measure attitudes and feelings, such as trust in government or whether people think they matter to others in their community. And while the poll asks questions about civic actions (“Do you read the news?”), It does not provide information about civic life in their community (“My city council gives me a meaningful voice in decisions that concern me. “)
Civic health outcomes are affected by a community’s ‘civic infrastructure’ – the laws, processes, institutions, and associations that support opportunities for people to connect, solve problems, take action. decisions and celebrate the community. This can include things as diverse as welcoming public spaces, grassroots groups like neighborhood associations, and racial equity training for public servants.
We often incorporate this idea into our research. For example, we helped people in six states by examining local and state civic infrastructure before we started trying to improve civic health.
To achieve a more comprehensive assessment of civic health, several approaches can be taken.
Going beyond census data can lead to deeper representations of engagement. The Community Social Capital Baseline Survey, sponsored by three dozen community foundations and used sporadically across the country, measures trust, social connections, and barriers to engagement. Other national surveys, such as the American Trends Panel at the Pew Research Center, ask other useful questions about civic life that could be included in other surveys.
Other state and national research may provide insight into how civic health affects certain populations or social issues, such as opioid use. For example, the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count data and the Youth Risk Behavior Survey both provide information on youth experiences and civic health.
Many tools allow citizens to share their own assessments. We have a civic engagement dashboard for people to rate the civic life of their local community in terms of participatory practice and transparency. Communities can also experiment with collecting qualitative data, such as participatory action research or storytelling campaigns.
Once civic health data is collected, how can communities use it? Ideally, civic health outcomes should directly inform interventions aimed at strengthening civic life. For example, in our study last year of New Hampshire, we found that millennials lag behind other generations when it comes to civic health. With one of the oldest populations of any state, New Hampshire’s future depends on its ability to help young adults participate in civic life. The state is now considering various approaches to meet this challenge.
Other states have used civic health data to catalyze conversations about civic life. Connecticut has created a statewide Civic Health Advisory Committee, which includes the Secretary of State, where leaders from different sectors discuss civic priorities. The Georgia Family Connection Partnership used civic health data to stimulate conversations in different counties about civic health programs and priorities.
The choices we make in the years to come, such as how to rebuild the community after the pandemic, will have lasting effects on our society. We are watching the face of unprecedented political polarization, with growing calls for white supremacy and intensifying movements for racial equity. At the same time, our population faces the challenge of re-entering public life after more than a year of social isolation.
There is therefore no longer an urgent time to make informed choices about the actions that will best support strong civic health.
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