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Citizens at the Center: A New Approach to Civic Engagement

The central claims of this noteworthy 31-page white paper by Cindy Gibson (2006) are that “public service” is a more powerful frame around which to rally Americans for democratic renewal than “civic engagement” and the encouragement of public deliberation should be at the center of renewal efforts. Scholar Peter Levine of the University of Maryland has written that he considers the paper a breakthrough. Cynthia Gibson makes deliberation-linked-to-action the heart of civic engagement, instead of voting and/or service in this paper for the Case Foundation. Download the paper here.

According to Gibson, getting citizens more involved in the civic life and health of their communities must begin with citizens themselves. Based on interviews with researchers and experts in service/civic engagement, politics, and marketing, the paper offers specific recommendations for giving citizens the tools they need to identify problems and develop solutions — and warns against top-down solutions that require people to “plug into” existing programs or campaigns.

Many Americans have turned away from politics and political institutions for the same reasons they have turned away from other civic institutions — a sense that what they do matters little when it comes to the civic life and health of their communities or the country. Shifting to an approach that puts citizens at the center can be a powerful way to help ordinary people to take action on the problems that are most important to them, and in the ways they choose.


To develop and adopt citizen-centered approaches, the service and civic engagement field should:

  • Shift the focus. Instead of asking how to encourage civic engagement, consider the best ways to give people opportunities to define and solve problems themselves.
  • Start young. Don’t wait till high school to begin developing the basic skills that young people will need to be effective problem-solvers.
  • Involve all community institutions. Engage faith-based organizations, schools, businesses, and government agencies in providing public deliberation and problem-solving for all citizens.
  • Use technology to create a new kind of “public commons.” Leverage technology’s power to encourage, facilitate, and increase citizen-centered dialogue, deliberation, organizing, and action around a wide variety of issues.
  • Explore and create new mechanisms. Don’t assume that traditional venues like town hall meetings are sufficient to truly get different types of people to engage and share perspectives. Look at where people are already interacting (such as neighborhood organizations, schools, and workplaces) and consider other approaches, structures, and venues.
  • Conduct rigorous research about what works and why. While considerable research has been conducted on the levels of volunteering, voting, community service, and political participation, there is a need for more evaluation about the motivating forces behind such behaviors — and what approaches are effectively solving community problems.
  • Encourage more funding for these approaches. Many funders may be reluctant to support long-term, local efforts, preferring to support bigger initiatives with a more immediate “payoff.” Attracting more funding will require demonstrating the concrete results of local deliberation and action.
  • Help communities move from deliberation to action. Deliberation should serve as a means to the end of communities being able to take action collectively in ways that reap results they can see and experience.

What Do Citizen-Centered Approaches Look Like?

  • They focus primarily on culture change, rather than short-term outcomes, issues, or victories.
  • They provide opportunities for people to form and promote their own decisions, build capacities for self-government, and promote open-ended civic processes.
  • They are pluralistic and nonpartisan.
  • They help to transcend ideological silos.
  • They get beyond the debate over whether service or political action is more important.
  • They’re not just about talking.
  • They do not replace politics or other democratic processes.

About the Author

This paper was researched and written by Cynthia M. Gibson, Ph.D. Gibson is principal of Cynthesis Consulting, which specializes in public policy research and analysis, program development, strategic planning, and marketing/ communications for nonprofit organizations, including philanthropic institutions. Previously, she served as a program officer at Carnegie Corporation of New York in the area of “Strengthening U.S. Democracy,” as well as a senior staff member and consultant for several national nonprofit public policy organizations and foundations. She is the author of numerous publications-including From Inspiration to Participation: Strategies for Youth Civic Engagement and (with Peter Levine) The Civic Mission of Schools-that have become standards for the civic engagement field. She is also a member of the adjunct faculty at The New School University’s Milano Graduate School of Management and Urban Policy and a senior fellow at Tufts University.

About the Case Foundation

The mission of the Case Foundation, founded in 1997 by Jean and Steve Case, is to achieve sustainable solutions to complex social problems by investing in collaboration, leadership, and entrepreneurship. The foundation is applying these strategies to expand civic engagement and volunteerism, meet the needs of underserved children and families, create thriving and sustainable economic development for communities, bridge cultural and religious divides, and accelerate innovative approaches to health care. The foundation’s work stretches across the United States and around the world.

Check out the interesting comments on this article from some key leaders in the community service and dialogue & deliberation fields on the Case Foundation website at www.casefoundation.org/spotlight/civic_engagement/summary.

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