Civic Engagement as Policy Implementation
Here in the U.S., we tend to associate non-governmental agencies (NGOs) with underdeveloped nations, undertaking projects such as the installation of wells in Africa, education in Central America, or sustainable agricultural practices in Southeast Asia. NGOs operate “over there,” and are rarely framed as a domestic endeavor.
We certainly have NGOs operating domestically in the U.S., but typically they are formed as a non-profit organization. A mission statement is established, a business plan developed, a target audience identified, and private fundraising follows. With any combination of luck and effort, the organization solidifies, and perhaps expands beyond its base, be it neighborhood, city or an under-served population.
Americans also see “civic engagement” with a rather fuzzy view, thinking that it references volunteer activities around one’s community. Volunteering for such activities as Habit for Humanity, or fundraising for the United Way, or participating in a cancer-awareness walk can certainly help build a sense of community, but I shy from defining “civic engagement” in such a manner. This hews closer to what I call “community involvement.”
Civic engagement is any activity – voluntary or paid – that ultimately relies on citizens to provide a check and balance on governmental activities, to ensure that government lives up to its service in balancing the multiple interests of citizens, communities, populations, etc. This can and does include attending city council meetings, school board meetings, and so forth. Yet, in the U.S., civic engagement is almost always followed by “but I’m too busy.”
Too busy? And yet, and yet, we’ll sit in restaurants, we’ll stand by the coffee maker at work, complaining incessantly about how government isn’t working for us.
Little wonder: We’re holding up the coffee queue rather than constructively participating in civic engagement.
And if the little that remains of civic-engagement opportunities in the U.S. consists of the trivial, then let’s make it our job to turn it into the substantive.
Case in point: There’s a growing movement in some major cities towards “participative budgeting.” At first glance, it seems engaging. Citizens decide on how municipal budgets are spent in the community.
Yet, there’s a problem with many participative budgeting initiatives. The budget under discussion usually represents only a miniscule percentage of the larger budget, but that larger budget remains off limits to citizen participation.
So let’s make the entire budget “participatory” by pushing for initiatives such as local financial oversight offices.
But there is more than attending meetings or pushing for legislative changes when it comes to civic engagement. Once we push past the tried and true, we find that the barriers between “civic engagement” and “community involvement” are not so firm after all. In fact, simply by training our focus on other countries, we can find any number of approaches to civic engagement/community involvement, approaches that remain largely novel to us here in the States, but provide substantive blueprints for proceeding into the future.
The Bureau for Social Development, Amsterdam
I consider myself fortunate to have developed a long-standing online relationship with Edgar van Lokven, owner of the Amsterdam-based Bureau for Social Development (Dutch: Bureau Voor Maatschappelijke Ontwikkeling, or BMO). We share similar outlooks on how the confluence of government and local communities should operate, particularly when it comes to civic engagement and community involvement.