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Citizen Engagement

By Susan Himel ( or

Susan Himel is a consultant with a special interest in the dynamics of technology, advocacy & social change. She has worked on various projects at OPC, Innovaction and the Canadian Health Network for the past 5 years.

Citizen engagement has recently emerged as an important topic on the Canadian political and social agenda. There are many reasons for this renewed interest in the relationship between citizens and their elected representatives. North Americans are increasingly less engaged with their communities today than was true of previous generations. Together with a growing disconnection of people to their communities, is an increased alienation and distrust by citizens, towards their elected representatives, and government institutions. While "citizen participation" has been part of the political and social fabric for a long time, there is a current questioning of our democratic system and its ageing institutions, due to the effects of globalization, technology, education, etc. This makes the re-examination of citizen engagement in a 21st century global context a social imperative.

The feature will review the following elements of citizen engagement:

A. An introduction to current perspectives on citizen engagement and how it is defined within the Canadian political and social context;

B. Citizen engagement and the civil society, including the development of social capital, and how it affects to our personal, civic, and economic health; and,

C. Examples of how we can increase the capacity of communities to have meaningful community engagement, to influence public policy agendas, and, ultimately, to strengthen civil society.

A. What is citizen engagement?

There are a variety of definitions and ideas to describe citizen engagement. Citizen engagement refers to different roles of the individual citizen, participating as a voter, as a volunteer, and as a member of an inter-dependent community, depending on the perspective and context. Although the words "civic" and "citizen" are often used interchangeably, a distinction exists between the two terms. The "civic" concept refers to the values, and acceptance of the idea that people should be involved in their constituencies. "Citizen engagement" refers to how people are individually involved as voters, volunteers, etc.

i) Citizen engagement as political participation

In the Canadian political context, citizen engagement is a call to 'modernize' the relationship between government and citizens. This definition of citizen engagement can be viewed as a "two-way learning process between citizens and their elected officials and public sector institutions in a search for common ground" (Jocelyne Bourgon, for Institute on Governance It represents a shift from traditional paths of political influence and existing government institutions, to a sharing of power over the processes of policy making and decision-making.

In Talking with Canadians: Citizen Engagement and the Social Union (F. Abele et al. published by the Canadian Council for Social Development), the authors suggest that more concerted and meaningful efforts to engage citizens are now required, as a result of a decline in public confidence in the traditional paths of political influence. "Canadian society is increasingly diverse, an advantage that creates the need for measures to ensure that no group is systematically excluded. Changes in the orientation of the public service to citizens, and new technologies, have created new opportunities" ( ).The study examines the Canadian experience of citizen engagement, and applies this experience to the renewal of Canada's social union, as a focus for citizen discussion.

There are many different organizations and concerned politicians, at all levels of government, involved in citizen engagement. The Society We Want (TSWW) public dialogue project, at the Family Network of the Canadian Policy Research Network (CPRN) (, is an initiative that addresses the need for dialogue around meaningful citizen engagement (see earlier OHPE Bulletin #131 Making Our Voices Heard: Talking about Health, Talking about Work). TSWW process provides the opportunity for citizens to give input to public policy development, to talk with one another, and to understand each other better (See Resources for more information on different organizations involved in citizen participation and community action activities).

ii) Citizen engagement as volunteerism

Organizations, politicians, and individuals have also defined citizen engagement in terms of volunteerism. This view promotes the idea that part of the civic duty of citizens, in addition to voting, is to participate in voluntary activities in the community. The underlying assumption is that if people participate in their communities by volunteering their time and giving money to charitable causes, then they will be more connected to, and involved in, the overall well-being of their communities (Assoc. for Volunteer Administration A concern with defining citizen engagement as volunteerism, is that it can be used as a way for governments to rationalize cutbacks (for example, the idea that neighbours should fill the lack of licensed child care spaces void).

The current provincial government in Ontario promotes the volunteerism approach to citizen engagement in its new high school civics program. It now includes forty hours of community service as a requirement for graduation. "The community involvement requirement is designed to encourage students to develop awareness and understanding of civic responsibility, and the role they can play in supporting and strengthening their communities" (Ministry of Education, Diploma requirements and related procedures).

The Civic Renewal Project in the City of Barrie, Ontario, has actively engaged youth and agencies in that community, to help define and shape their community involvement. Included in their Civic Renewal Roundtables is the challenge of developing curriculum resources that speak to the qualitative, rather than a quantitative engagement of students in their community (See OHPE Bulletin #93 Collaboration - Working Together for Community Capacity).

B. How can citizen engagement work towards building a civil society?

At a recent City of Toronto seminar entitled, Challenges of Civic Engagement, Benjamin Barber suggested that we must assume our power as citizens, if we are to effect meaningful social change. Barber does not believe that governments can make citizens participate, and objects to the current 'mental model' of human society as a kind of market. He challenges the commercialized view of governments as service providers, and citizens as clients. Barber thinks that this view disempowers citizens and makes them passive.

Barber (Whitman Professor of Political Science, Rutgers University) writes extensively and speaks about the challenges of engaging citizens. He believes that there is a strong connection of citizen engagement to democracy, and challenges us to find ways to make citizen engagement meaningful in building community, and increasing social trust, and social capital (see Keynote Address on Institute on Governance website at

"Social capital" means that social networks have value. The benefits from social networks flow from the "trust, reciprocity, information, and cooperation" associated with them. As Robert Putnam asserts, "social capital creates value for the people who are connected and - at least sometimes - for bystanders as well" (

Barber believes that democracy is the relationship between power and participation, and not merely an exercise in citizen complaint, as it has recently become. Citizen participation, defined as collective action with fellow citizens, through power sharing and real decision-making, is central to the future of democracy and civil society. With the effects of globalization and its acute centralization of power, he believes that citizen engagement is most effective at the local community level.

Barber also points out that today, liberty has come to mean private consumer choice, which is not synonymous with active citizenship and democracy. He calls for a genuine sharing of power with venues for communicating with each other. We need to ensure different avenues for political involvement of young people at the local community level, as one way to prevent a cycle of apathy and cynicism.

Robert Putnam's latest book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, also makes the connection between "social capital" and the broader health of individuals and communities. Putnam's work shows how social bonds are a key predictor of personal and societal health, and wellness. "Communities with less social capital have lower educational performance and more teen pregnancy, child suicide, low birth weight, and prenatal mortality. Social capital is also a strong predictor of crime rates and other measures of neighborhood quality of life, as it is of our health" (

C. Citizen engagement and the community - Where do we go from here?

There are many ways that groups and individuals suggest involving communities in citizen engagement, but no clear answers to the problem of declining social capital and social trust. Robert Putnam suggests that we need to have a period of sustained community building and reform, that would collectively transform our schools, workplace practices, and use of the Internet, to focus on social, not financial capital. Most importantly, people need to start talking with one another (Barber).

In talking together and focusing on community building, we move citizen engagement beyond mere voting, consultation, and volunteering. These are not new concepts. Sherry Arnstein, in her classic article from 1969, wrote about the 'eight rung' "ladder of citizen participation". The "ladder" shows how non-participating citizens can achieve full participation and control by increasing their levels of power and decision-making clout. According to Arnstein, citizen participation can become citizen power.

Some of the work of citizen empowerment is already happening in our communities (See Resources for examples). There are local initiatives that transform the role of the citizen. Technology also offers us powerful tools that can contribute to this transformation (See report of the Roundtable on On-line Engagement

There are many new opportunities, as well as challenges, that result from the re-emergence of citizen engagement. The keys to a civil society are active citizen participation, strong communities that share real power, and meaningful partnerships between the community, business, and multiple levels of government. It is time to move beyond theories and definitions of citizen engagement, and provide communities with the supports they need, to enable citizens to participate fully in their vision of community. Only in this way, will we move towards full citizen participation, and the realization of a truly civil society.

Key References

Abele, Frances; Graham, Katherine; Ker, Alex , Maioni, Antonia; Phillips, Susan. "Talking with Canadians: Citizen Engagement and the Social Union" Canadian Council on Social Development 1999. Ottawa

Arnstein, Sherry R. "A Ladder of Citizen Participation," Journal of the American Planning Association, Vol. 35, No. 4,

July 1969, pp. 216-224.

Barber, Benjamin. "Jihad vs McWorld-Trade", Ballantine Books 1996 or "the Search for Civil Society" Civic Practices Network 1995

Bourgon, Jocelyne "Keynote Address - Citizen Engagement and the Public Service", Clerk of the Privy Council, Government of Canada

Putnam, Robert "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital" article in Journal of Democracy 6:1 Jan. 1995 pp. 65-78 soon to be released as a book by Simon & Shuster N.Y. see: