The National Civic League Turns 125

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By Mike McGrath

January 25, 2019 marks an anniversary for the National Civic League—125 years of advocacy, research, publishing and hands-on civic assistance to localities and regions throughout the country. Originally known as the National Municipal League, the organization was founded during a period of social unrest, economic crisis and urban dysfunction.

In 1894, when the League was founded at the first annual National Conference on Good Local Government, the United States was undergoing a transformation from a largely rural society with an agrarian economy to an industrial power with a growing urban population.

It was a late nineteenth century version of globalization. Immigrants were moving to American cities to find economic opportunity and relief from the crushing poverty of depressed agricultural communities in the U.S. and other regions of the world.

The forms of municipal government that existed at the time—large decentralized, unwieldy assortments of stand-alone departments overseen by directly-elected chiefs or appointed commissioners beholden to powerful political machines—seemed inadequate to the job of managing the complexity of rapidly expanding and increasingly diverse urban areas.

Civil service laws were only beginning to catch on, so many cities operated according to the spoils system, where patronage jobs came as a reward for loyal service to the dominant political party machine. Political machines were mechanisms for harvesting votes, and patronage was the oil that kept the machine running smoothly. Graft and patronage, however, were not strictly local in the late nineteenth century. Statewide party machines also got into the act.

The Early Years

During the early to mid-twentieth century, the League was instrumental in introducing a variety of how-to guides for the proper care and feeding of a modern municipal government. In 1897, a committee was formed to report on the feasibility of developing a “municipal program,” which embodied “the essential principles that must underlie successful municipal government.”

In 1912, the League began publishing the National Municipal Review (now the National Civic Review), to serve as a clearinghouse for the latest ideas on municipal governance and public administration.

The most significant breakthrough in developing a program or plan for local government structure came in 1915, when the Model City Charter was published. The model called for a professional city manager appointed by a small city council elected on a nonpartisan basis, the form of government known today as the “council/manager” plan.

The League branched out into other areas, publishing models for everything from state constitutions to county coroner’s office, along with how-to-guides for the design of voter registration systems, reapportionment procedures and charter review committees.

All-America Cities

In 1949, the League handed out its first All-America City Awards, an honor given annually (in most years) to ten communities for outstanding civic accomplishments. The award reflected a growing concern among members of the National Municipal League Board of Directors with the importance of civic engagement and citizen participation in local and regional affairs. Pollster George Gallup, one of the most influential members of the board during the 1950s and 1960s, put it this way:

Millions of educated and talented persons in the United States are ready to contribute their time and effort to the solution of political and social problems that beset their communities today; but their services are rarely solicited, simply because no one has bothered to work out a plan for soliciting, no machinery has been devised for using the services of those selected, and no way has been found to make practical use of the conclusions they reach. What is needed, therefore, is the creation, through man’s inventive genius, of social and political instruments that can make full use of the vast reservoir of mental power.1

President Dwight D. Eisenhower recognized the role of the League in helping “to remind the American people of a central fact about our American system of government: that its effectiveness, at every level, depends on enlightened citizen interest and participation.”2

A Crisis of Public Confidence

By the 1970s, the League identified a new “crisis,” a crisis of confidence in American institutions. With the growing sense of public disillusionment with the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, the energy crisis and the impacts of economic stagnation, public confidence in government had reached an all-time low.

At the annual meeting of the National Conference on Government in 1973, there was a somber plenary discussion of a growing “crisis of confidence in American institutions,” an attitude of “anger, frustration, apathy and mistrust.” Members of the National Municipal League vowed to renew their commitment to “energizing leadership respected at the grassroots of American civic and political life” as the best hope of “rebuilding confidence in the viability of American institutions, public, private and voluntary.”3

Recognizing that its mission needed to evolve with the changing nature of community problem-solving, League staff and board members participated in a strategic planning process to analyze the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats to the organization. What emerged, eventually, was a new mission to focus not just on government but on “governance,” the interplay of stakeholders, leaders and organizers that made communities successful.

The board and staff of the organization were tasked with answering a question: why was it that some communities seemed better able than others to address the challenges that most communities were facing—whether it was a natural disaster like a flood or a loss of a large employer?

What they came up with was the idea of “civic infrastructure,” the sum of formal and informal connections and capacities that allowed members of communities to come together to analyze their challenges and agree on common strategies and action agendas to address them. A year later at the National Conference on Governance, the League unveiled its ten-point “Civic Index,” a self-assessment tool that communities could use to weigh their civic strengths and weaknesses, which was later referred to as civic capital.

The index was useful when the League began offering a Civic Assistance (later dubbed Community Services) program to provide technical support to towns and cities where leaders wanted to engage members of the public in collaborative, strategic planning and visioning efforts. The index was used as a conversation starter as stakeholders met to discuss community improvement projects and develop a long-term vision for the future.

The index was also used to help applicants for the All-America Award, which by now was focused on community efforts that demonstrated an ability to engage members of the public and the three sectors—public, private and nonprofit. To reflect its new mission, the organization changed its name to the National Civic League in 1987. Two years later it moved its headquarters from New York City to Denver, Colorado.

Healthy Communities and Civic Renewal

The League’s growing expertise in community-based problem solving and public participation led to a partnership with the U.S. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion in 1989 to introduce the World Health Organization’s “Healthy Cities” to American communities. The idea of Healthy Cities was to link community-based planning efforts with public health promotion.

The model was based on the insight that environmental conditions in towns and cities were central to the promotion of good public health. The League’s role in what came to be known as the “Healthy Communities” movement led to an ambitious statewide initiative, the Colorado Healthy Communities Initiative.

Funded by the Colorado Trust, the program helped 29 communities engage members of the public in ambitious plans for making their cities and regions more prosperous and healthy. The process resulted in the development of tangible improvements in many of the participating communities, including Colorado Roaring Fork Valley, which includes Aspen and Glenwood Springs. There, the local committee took actions that led to the development of a regional transit system. As Doug Easterling wrote in the National Civic Review:

CHCI was highly successful on many metrics. Across a diverse set of Colorado communities, residents who had never been involved in civic affairs joined with established leaders in a lengthy period of analysis, deliberation, and planning. Often for the first time, local stakeholders took a long, hard look at their community’s deeper, systemic issues, as opposed to focusing in on a narrowly defined problem. As a result of the in-depth planning process, a variety of important new projects and organizations emerged, including some that added value to their communities for years to come.4

Diversity, Inclusion and Sustainability

During the 1990s and 2000s, the National Civic League played an influential role in what some have described as a “civic renewal movement,” a national effort to promote civic engagement and collaborative problem-solving in communities. Along with groups like Everyday Democracy, the Kettering Foundation, and the National Commission on Civic Renewal, the League became a national clearinghouse for innovative ideas about deliberative democracy and public engagement.

In the words of authors Carmen Sirianni and Lewis Friedland, the League “played an especially important role in diffusing the themes of civic renewal throughout various networks, refining best practices in collaborative problem-solving, and linking networks of leading practitioners as part of a broader movement…it has provided training and facilitation for scores of communities engaged in collaborative projects or ambitious community visioning, and its Civic Index has served as an important tool for hundreds of communities applying for the All-America City Awards.”5

In recent years, a new kind of crisis seems to have emerged in the face of technological change, global economic and cultural integration and increasing income inequality. The politics of polarization have stymied innovation, problem-solving and consensus building in national governments around the world, weaponized religious, ethnic and racial conflict and have hampered collaborative efforts to address critical issues such as climate change and the need to improve educational opportunities.

The League has responded by focusing more attention on community engagement as a means of addressing pressing challenges. The League helped launch the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, a national effort to improve early childhood literacy and was an active member in the public-nonprofit partnership that created SolSmart, an award program to recognize cities that make it easier and more affordable for businesses and households to convert to solar energy.

In 2019, as part of a year-long celebration, the League will be releasing a new edition of the Civic Index (see Doug Linkhart’s article in this issue). The All-America City Award will be focused on recognizing localities and regions that promote healthy communities through inclusive civic engagement.

Mike McGrath is Editor of the National Civic Review.

George Gallup, “Comment,” National Civic Review, May 1964, 379.

Alfred Willoughby, The Involved Citizen: A Short History of the National Municipal League, 35.

National Civic Review, Volume 63, Issue 11, December 1974.

4 Doug Easterling, National Civic Review, Spring 2012, 42-48.

5 Carmen Sirianni and Lewis Friedland, Civic Innovation in America: Community Empowerment, Public Policy, and the Movement for Civic Renewal, University of California Press, 2001, 253.

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