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Civic academies for all: Our democracy depends on it

This article by Diane Kalen-Sukra was originally published in the January 2020 edition of Municipal World. Democracy is a spirit that is most critically lived at the local/community level. 60% of Canadians want improved civic education (SFU Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue). What is the role of local government in civic education?

See: CBC's article this week Political dysfunction in US is a warning for Canada: Don't take democracy for granted.

Local Government, Democracy & Civic Education

Civic engagement is all the rage. And it’s no wonder; the benefits are numerous. From building public trust to having a more engaged citizenry to enhancing local government decision making, civic engagement is a critical part of effective local government in a democracy.

Besides, we’ve long known that without active, informed, and engaged citizens, a democracy cannot sustain itself. This was the primary motivation behind the establishment of civic academies from ancient Greece to today. Voting is only the most rudimentary act of citizenship.

British philosopher and civil servant John Stuart Mill expressed this imperative bluntly in his Considerations on Representative Government published in 1861. He writes, “every operation of government will go wrong” if the people and their representatives are “mere masses of ignorance, stupidity, and baleful prejudice.” Such a government will fail to defend, protect, and advance the liberties, rights, and well-being of all; citizens will be either indifferent or not knowledgeable enough to elect good leaders or empowered enough to hold their elected officials accountable. Ouch. Thankfully, we are seeing a revival of civic engagement and education by local governments – partly driven by citizen demand, the exigencies of good governance and sustainable service delivery in these challenging times, and statistics showing declining trust and support for public institutions, politicians, and democracy.

A revival of civic education and engagement Formal civic academies are popping up all over the United States. The City of New Orleans, for example, now offers an eight-week Civic Leadership Academy program twice a year to build the “capacity of citizens to become effective neighbourhood advocates” and “encourage collaboration and partnership between a wide variety of organizations.” This interactive program includes tours of city facilities and presentations by city officials, providing an insiders’ view of how the city operates. Last year, a Junior Civic Leadership Academy was piloted for 13- to 17-year-olds to ensure “students will be better equipped to engage their communities and help improve residents’ quality of life.”

The cities of Calgary and Edmonton both offer week-long City Hall Schools for elementary and high school students to “participate in the public realm, becoming informed and civically engaged citizens.” Graduates of the Edmonton school enter into a year-long connection with city hall that includes city hall journals and the key to the city, culminating in an annual Citizenship Fair in June, allowing students to showcase their learning.

The City of Prince George has an annual engagement initiative called Talktober where council and staff host neighbourhood conversations with residents during the month of October to connect and receive feedback. This year the city’s focus was on ageing infrastructure and what that means for the future. While a recently uncovered failed stormwater pipe (and source of a recurring sinkhole) helped to pique interest, the state of our municipal infrastructure and management of public assets is a discussion that all municipalities should be having with their residents – the folks who own those assets and are on the hook for their renewal, replacement, or disposal.

It is important to note that civic engagement exists on a spectrum. The International Association for Public Participation makes a distinction between engagement that informs, consults, involves, collaborates with, or empowers citizens. All are appropriate in different circumstances and are effective so long as the promise to the public is clear. On one end, inform means “we’ll keep you in the loop.” On the other end, empower promises to implement what the public decides – normally reserved for elections and unique cases where referendums or assent voting are appropriate. Local governments are using an ever-widening range of civic engagement tactics – from a participatory budget process to keeping the public better informed through social media to the use of citizen advisory committees. Technology is providing new possibilities for wide-ranging public input, as well as data-mining solutions that promise to uncover hitherto unknown patterns and relationships that could drive more informed and efficient decision making in the future.

Fostering the democratic spirit Of course, if we did not live in a democracy, none of this would be very necessary. The goal would simply be to communicate enough to inspire fear or awe, silence dissent, and prevent revolt (the work of a spin doctor or propaganda machine) – not to activate a new generation of informed and engaged citizens. And it’s not easy. Former U.S. President George W. Bush said it best: “If this were a dictatorship it would be a heck of a lot easier … as long as I’m the dictator. Hehehe.”

As democratic nations, we have rejected the notion that a dictator gets to decide what is best for us. Instead, we have transferred the responsibilities of governance onto ourselves and onto our communities.

The freedom of self-governance comes with citizen responsibilities – these include responsibility to consider the public good, to speak out against injustice wherever you see it, and to engage when necessary in public life for the betterment of your community, province, or nation.

Somewhere along the line we lost our way and thought that, as with Adam Smith’s “invisible hand of the market,” people could actively pursue their narrow self-interest and the common good would just magically work itself out. That’s not how democracy works. In any political and social system, somebody has got to be responsible for the well-being of the ship, our common interests, and shared destiny. In a democracy, that’s us. All of us.

Diane Kalen-Sukra, MA, CMC, is the author of Save Your City: How Toxic Culture Kills Community & What To Do About It (Municipal World, 2019).


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