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New PACE Report on How Local Gov't is Reinventing Civic Engagement

Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE) just released a great new report called “The New Laboratories of Democracy:  How Local Government is Reinventing Civic Engagement.”  Mike McGrath from the National Civic League authored the report, which can be downloaded from the PACE website at http://pacefunders.org/publications/NewLaboratoriesofDemocracy.pdf.

The PACE report details the innovative methods local governments around the country are using to increase civic engagement by the public. “Local governments are at the cutting edge of finding new tools and methods to increase civic engagement in this country. We hope this report will stimulate new thinking within the philanthropic community, as well as in local governments around the country, and help spread the word about these new and successful approaches,” said Chris Gates, Executive Director of PACE.

Featuring a foreword by National League of Cities Executive Director Donald Borut, the report combines original research with an overview of the literature and history of civic engagement and local government reform while highlighting fresh insights from foundation leaders, civic experts, scholars, local officials and public engagement advocates.

“The New Laboratories of Democracy: How Local Government is Reinventing Civic Engagement” traces the quest for deeper and more authentic forms of public engagement from the anti-poverty programs over the last 45 years through the 1990s when a variety of trends came together to foster a “second wave” of civic innovation. Those trends included a growing skepticism about government’s role in society, increasing concern for the need to re-knit the fabric of struggling communities and a desire for more authentic, civil and “deliberative” forms of public discourse and decision-making.

A concluding section explores the next phase of local government innovation, finding effective uses of the internet, new communications technologies and social networking tools to move from “place-based” meetings and organizing to the brave new world of “Democracy 2.0.”

“One of the biggest challenges of doing this report,” notes author Mike McGrath, “was where to start. There are so many examples of civic innovation, but no central clearinghouse or database of successes. Once I started the research I was truly amazed at the creative thinking going on at the community level in this country as local government leaders work to bring citizens back into public life.”

The report suggests the need for more practical research and dissemination on the effectiveness of different approaches, so government leaders can be, in the words of one expert, “better consumers” of civic engagement strategies. It also recommends finding a common language of civic engagement that resonates with ordinary citizens and busy public officials.

“Foundations have played a critical role in fostering many of the changes noted in the report,” said Gates. “Not only have they provided resources for non-profit organizations that promote community organizing and civic engagement, they have also partnered directly with local governments to fund some of the most innovative projects.”

PACE is an affinity group of the Council on Foundations, founded in 2005 to bring new philanthropic focus to the issue of civic engagement and democratic renewal. For more information about PACE or this white paper, contact Chris Gates, Executive Director of PACE, at cgates@pacefunders.org, or the author of the paper, Mike McGrath at mcgrath.mike1@gmail.com.

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Sandy Heierbacher
Sandy Heierbacher co-founded the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD) with Andy Fluke in 2002, with the 60 volunteers and 50 organizations who worked together to plan NCDD’s first national conference. She served as NCDD's Executive Director between 2002 and 2018. Click here for a list of articles and resources authored by Sandy.

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