Harnessing the Power of Civic Engagement

Posted on January 20, 2021

image is of three antique brown spoked wheels

Today’s Morning Buzz is brought to you by Katie Beemer, Management Fellow for the City of Wayland, MI and MPA Student at Grand Valley State University. You can connect with her via LinkedIn, Twitter, or Instagram.

What I’m reading: Untamed by Glennon Doyle. I first heard Glennon speak at our ICMA conference last fall, as part of the League of Women in Government Symposium, and am really enjoying her perspective.

What I’m watching: A Place at the Table: This 2012 documentary investigates incidents of hunger experienced by millions of Americans, and proposed solutions to the problem.

What I’m listening to: Hadestown: This 2019 Broadway musical is a gorgeous retelling of the Orpheus myth and features some truly stunning harmonies.

For me, the draw of local government is that local government and government, in general, offers a cog in the wheels of our institutions, touching every spoke and influencing all the other sectors. After all, local government is involved in everything from business through economic development to providing public recreation opportunities to working with the education sector. In all areas, it is local government that helps to connect them, and local government is in a unique position to act as a connecting agent between sectors. But, the cog in the wheel only connects these sectors, the wheel still needs a force to be moved and that force is civic engagement. Without civic engagement, that wheel cannot turn.

On this day of transition, I am thinking a lot about civic engagement. During the last several years, we have seen an unprecedented level of civic engagement in the United States, from record levels of voting to increased involvement in daily political and governmental actions. I have heard story after story of citizens who previously would not have been able to pass the American citizenship test who now know the ins and outs of Congressional procedure. The engagement has extended down to the local level as well, growing during the pandemic, as we’ve seen increased engagement through more accessible public meetings. Many people find it easier to join a Zoom call or participate remotely, without requiring the extra step of coming in person. In classes, we always learned that compared to other countries, Americans were generally apathetic about civic engagement; yet I’m not sure we would say the same thing today. People care; they want to be engaged, they recognize the ways in which government has the power to impact their lives, and they recognize that government takes an interest in them whether or not they take an interest in government.

In one of my classes, we recently discussed a quote from our textbook, Achieving Competencies in Public Service, by James Bowman, Jonathan P. West, and Marcia A. Beck. They said: “Decisions regarding public services are a public responsibility”, and I am struck by this statement that civic engagement is core to offering services as governments. While this has always been true, it is more widely acknowledged now, that the involvement of the people in our systems is what makes it work. It is our public responsibility to participate, to make voices heard, and to continue to realize that if public services are a public responsibility that the involvement of all will be needed to continue to move the wheel of government.

As citizens, our main responsibility is to participate. As local government leaders, our main responsibility is to both provide opportunities for engagement, but also educate the public so that their engagement can be most effective. By teaching about what we do, how we do it, and why, we will provide better opportunities for engagement and help guide our communities towards better decision making. We need to harness that energy and interest, guiding it towards better public policy and public services.

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