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What is Civic Engagement?

Definitions of civic engagement in academic literature and on the Internet vary greatly.

However, it is our intent at IPCE to avoid a narrow debate about meanings and interpretations of civic engagement. We believe it is important that our definition be broad enough to encompass a wide range of activities, but also be specific enough to guide our activities. We frame civic engagement as a means to an end. For IPCE, civic engagement is any activity that contributes to a more effective democracy with the following features:

  • A democracy in which individuals have a basic understanding about how government works, and have access to information about important policy issues that affect their lives.
  • A democracy with a healthy two-way flow of information between all citizens or local leaders and the officials leading and running the government.
  • A democracy that takes full advantage of technology and tools available to create a more effective and responsive government, as well as supports an inclusive public discourse on policy issues.

Civic engagement can take on different meanings depending upon who is conducting the activity. For example, civic engagement at the individual level could include 'individualistic activism', such as voting or making a public statement through a bumper sticker or campaign button. At the group level, individuals may come together to engage in public demonstrations, discussions, or political meetings to a develop strategy and take action, often referred to as 'collective action'. Institutions like universities, corporations, interest groups, and non-profit organizations can also be agents of civic engagement by taking public positions on issues, advocating or lobbying for their own interests or the interests of their constituencies, or providing support and resources to advocacy efforts.

Regardless of who is doing the engaging, or what they are doing, central to our interpretation of civic engagement is a notion we borrow from Peter Levine's 2007 book The Future of Democracy: Developing the Next Generation of American Citizen. Levine argues that true civic engagement involves an actor who is paying "appropriate attention to the consequences of his behavior for the underlying political system" (pg.13). Citizens and institutions engaged in public acts are doing so with the understanding of how their actions can bring about their intended effects. In other words, they are fully informed about the issue they are addressing and aware of how their action makes a difference.

It is this interpretation of civic engagement that IPCE seeks to enhance. We provide information and education for individuals and institutions about specific policy issues, help them engage in ongoing dialogue with government and each other, and provide opportunities for them to connect with civic engagement efforts.