Civic engagement, a dry topic that greatly matters

Peter Levine presents a paper on improving civic engagement in communities that’s worth a look. Below are the five strategies from his executive summary.

Strategy 1: Create a Civic Information Corps using the nation’s “service”
infrastructure to generate knowledge. Take advantage of the large and growing
infrastructure of national and community service programs by requiring all service
participants to learn civic communications skills and by creating a new Civic
Information Corps—mainly young people who will use digital media to create
and disseminate knowledge and information and connect people and associations.
Strategy 2: Engage universities as community information hubs. Take advantage
of the nation’s vast higher education sector by changing policies and incentives
so that colleges and universities create forums for public deliberation and
produce information that is relevant, coherent, and accessible to their local communities.
Strategy 3: Invest in face-to-face public deliberation. Take advantage of the
growing practice of community-wide deliberative summits to strengthen democracy
at the municipal level by offering training, physical spaces, and neutral conveners
and by passing local laws that require public officials to pay attention to the
results of these summits.
Strategy 4: Generate public “relational” knowledge. Take advantage of new
tools for mapping networks and relationships to make transparent the structures
of our communities and to allow everyone to have the kind of relational knowledge
traditionally monopolized by professional organizers.
Strategy 5: Civic engagement for public information and knowledge. Take
advantage of the diverse organizations concerned with civic communications
to build an advocacy network that debates and defends public information and

The paper goes into more detail. You might be able to detect some political barriers to universal acceptance of these strategies. For instance, just who would be in charge of the “Civic Information Corps?” Yikes. But on a organizational basis the ideas make some sense. At the community college where I work we’ve employed civic responsibility into groups like student senate and some specific courses, following at least a couple of the strategies in Levine’s paper.

Fundamentally, many of our nation’s problems can be traced to a disengaged population, or a population that’s engaged with trivial or sensational matters divorced from the function of government or the nation’s true health. We’ve got a long way to go to change this.

(h/t Jennifer Armstrong)


  1. I support the idea of political debate, political discourse…. however this approach has the ring of the Sadducees, the Pharisees.

    Look at what it says..”set up the universites as the center of the information”. Sure has a ring of “holier than thou”. Like them or not, the so-called Tea Party has had a significant impact on recent politics. Do you think the Tea Party would have come out of academia? Would the East Anglia University / Penn State fraud have been exposed under this system? I think not.

    It says – “Take advantage of the diverse organizations …. to build an advocacy network that defends public information and knowledge”.
    Do you think the numerous frauds, the truths which Andrew Brietbart has exposed would be supported by this advocacy network? Just think of the bunny trail we’d be running down on global warming, climate change, climate disruption, etc. ir we let “real” knowledge come from acadamia or some “central government source” only.

    No…I think it’s best we let the free market of knowledge play out vs. applying central planning to information, knowledge and wisdom..

  2. Aaron: Loved these ideas. And, even though they might not be feasible in short term, part of me believes we need radical thinking like this to get more people engaged. People have great ideas–but we need more open forums, public discourse and new and different opportunities for people to get involved.


  3. @Ranger47 – I don’t think that colleges should have a monopoly on access to civic institutions. Popular movements often come from academia (I’d argue that modern conservatism, in its true original Buckley form, was very much an academic idea). But they can and should come from anywhere else, too.

    (We part ways on Breitbart, whose big scoops are often fraudulent).

    That said, what Levine is saying here and what I am trying to add, is that our public colleges and universities are uniquely positioned to be civic stations. They shouldn’t lecture to each other from within, rather they should open their doors to their communities and diverse ideas. That’s the model I follow at Hibbing, where our student senate (which I advise) hosts candidate forums open to the community. The issues important to students are raised, but the conversation is shared with everyone. We’d welcome voices from within the community. Indeed, our students reflect the community.

    I know there is a tendency to place academia in a box as having a specific agenda. I can promise we don’t have liberal indoctrination training. What’s true is that the nature of an academic lifestyle and thinking attracts more liberals than conservatives. It’s also true that if conservatives spent more time joining and attempting to improve public institutions (instead of tearing them down) we’d all be better off. There is demagoguery on both sides, but an educated discussion tends to strip debate down to its most important components.

    Is that happening in the current “free market” of ideas? No. I think we have the illusion of freedom filtered through a oligarchy.

    @Arik – Thanks! I have to credit Levine’s paper for the ideas, but it’s an issue I live and work with up here. I agree that some of these aren’t feasible, for many of the reasons Ranger47 points out.

  4. I’m open to the ideal of what you’re saying Aaron…let’s build on it. But help me out. Give me an example or two.

    On what topics recently have you truly – “opened your doors to diverse ideas?”

    I’m interested. “What issues are important to students” these days?

  5. Politics aside (as much as they can ever be placed aside), I completely love the idea of a Civic Information Corps. The question is where can the idea become more of a reality. Institutions of higher education definitely have a place at the table, but I think this is an ideal fit for libraries (public, academic, special) and information professionals in general.

    The values espoused in this idea very much coincide with the ethics and values of the library profession, and within that space I believe you could find many people eager to carry this type of concept forward.

  6. @Ranger47 – Just what I say – welcoming the community to the forum, providing access and information to those who seek it. Students are most interested in rising tuition and the cost of going to college. The debt loads facing even community or tech college students is very prohibitive to starting a career and family. The two-year college concept was supposed to be something students could pay for themselves with a part time job. That’s no longer remotely possible.
    @Jennifer – I don’t know, those librarians can be a dark and sinister lot. 🙂 I agree, though it’d be interesting to see if it was adopted as so many librarians are facing job cuts or increased duties. I need to see a working model for some of this.

  7. I agree Aaron, the community college system (formerly junior college), used to be very affordable..and very productive. What’s caused the costs to increase so much?

    I don’t have current figures for the Minnesota CC system but Bruininks recently said is budget was dismal. Is the guy crazy? Look at his budget. What’s doing this? And he has the gall to call it dismal??

    “Robert Bruininks is unhappy about his final operating budget, which he called “dismal.” Well, if the budget is “dismal” it must be getting cut, right?

    How big a decline would it take for you to say that your family’s budget is “dismal” and “disappointing?” Ten percent? Twenty?

    If I had to take a 20% cut, that would hurt a lot. So what’s happening to the budget for the University of Minnesota system?

    Here are the budget numbers according to the Univeristy’s own web sites:

    FY 2000: $1,816,000,000
    FY 2001: $1,886,000,000
    FY 2002: $2,005,000,000
    FY 2003: $2,118,000,000
    FY 2004: $2,098,000,000
    FY 2005: $2,201,000,000
    FY 2006: $2,368,000,000
    FY 2007: $2,532,000,000
    FY 2008: $2,747,000,000
    FY 2009: $2,902,000,000
    FY 2010: $2,900,000,000
    FY 2011: $3,400,000,000
    FY 2012: $3,700,000,000

    So the University’s own numbers indicate that the “dismal” and “disappointing” FY 2012 budget represents a $300 million, 8.8% increase over FY 2011. Will your family’s budget rise by 9% next year? Probably not.

    Something’s wrong Aaron. The citizens of Minnesota can’t afford to keep paying the educational system these kind of increases. Why is this happening?? Maybe it’s the name change…

  8. I haven’t gotten back to this until now. You’re referencing the U of M — I was talking about MNSCU. The U is a research land grant institution whose purpose also includes projects with different purpose. These are significant increases, but I’d venture that at least some of the increase would be the same rise in health care and commodity prices we see everywhere. That’s a key part of the overall budget increase for the state. The private sector has seen a similar increase. Yes, they’ve cut costs — mostly in layoffs — but they can do that. Public cost cutting means fewer services in areas that the private sector has no financial interest in taking over.

    But here we are in another large picture conversation. My original point was related to affordable public college education. The U of M has some connections to that, but the cost figures here are related to more than just that.

  9. Don’t give me fancy words, “land grant”, “commodity prices”, etc. Aaron. If fewer services and fewer public employees are the end result, then so be it. The citizens of St. Louis county, Itasca county, Minnesota and the U.S. are sick and tired of hearing government can’t get by with less when all of us working class have been getting by with less for the past three plus years…

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