A common narrative heard today is that American democracy is in a state of decline. There is a tendency to focus strictly on hyper-partisanship, polarization and attacks on the foundations of democratic institutions. But an important contributor to democratic disrepair is that much of our civic infrastructure has not been designed with residents in mind.
“If built with intention, civic infrastructure produces platforms on which a sense of shared responsibility can reside and grow; it enables us to communicate with one another more effectively; it helps to manage our differences; and it can help us to develop a shared understanding of what constitutes our common and public good.”
- Jill Blair and Malka Kopell, 21st Century Civic Infrastructure: Under Construction, The Aspen Institute, 2015
To build the foundations of democracy with intention, as Jill Blair and Malka Kopell suggest, there is a need to survey the types of civic infrastructure in place and how these building blocks fit together in order to appreciate where the cracks and crevices are that need strengthening.
If American civic infrastructure is currently on shaky ground, it’s not for a lack of experienced people with genuine intentions and ambitions. It’s easy to forget people within civil society, non-profit, and public sectors that organize and facilitate collaborative public events and conversations, help build the capacity of civic leaders, mobilize civic information, enable democratic connections and build bridges by bringing people together.
While there are countless people and organizations that are active, they might not be well connected. This can impact the ability to augment, scale or measure the work that they do, remove barriers for each other, eliminate the duplication of work, garner or redirect resources, receive vital training, as well as support their outreach and inclusion efforts.
Taking stock of civic assets, namely the people that are already doing good work, is a vital part of building better civic infrastructure.
In recognizing this necessity, it is important to have a systematic process for:
1) Collecting civic assets or parts that make up a specific system of civic infrastructure
2) Bringing relevant actors together to build upon each other’s work in a systematic and potentially innovative way
Why Do We Need to Scan Civic Infrastructure?
One reason we need to scan civic infrastructure is that there is a tendency to take for granted and reflect on civic infrastructure primarily through traditional institutional practices such as voting and elections. This type of framing is heavily focused on competitive processes that are often disconnected from citizen participation and deliberation, a factor contributing to public distrust and apathy. Limiting our purview of civic infrastructure misses activities associated with other forms of democratic association that strive to build an informed, collaborative and empowered citizenry. If we view civic infrastructure as an ecosystem of civic spaces, including areas like public health, environmental protection, social justice, affordable housing, stable jobs and a diversified economy, recreation, and so on, we can build interventions to support a more stable foundation of civic infrastructure.
Knowing the people doing democracy work, how they assemble people (i.e., the public, elected officials, government staff), the issues they try to solve and how they go about it, along with contexts and histories of public engagement, can help to find and alleviate the pain points while providing an opportunity for people to avoid pitfalls or struggling efforts.
How to Do a Civic Infrastructure Scan
Civic infrastructure scans are meant to establish a catered strategy for strengthening and innovating a decision-making process and enhancing connections within a network. Customized to specific networks of organizations, governments and non-profits, civic infrastructure scans can help to build trusting relationships and even seek to connect providers with groups that struggle with funding.
The process involves the use of mixed research methods, including quantitative data gathering and qualitative interviews to map or chart existing forms of civic engagement, such as in-person official public forums and governmental departments/agencies, social media activity, and networks consisting of community or civil society associations. Using the research, relevant partners generate interventions that build on existing civic engagement assets. In this way, civic infrastructure scans encourage collaboration among local members of the public, faith-based organizations, nonprofits, government agencies, schools, libraries, universities, and local businesses.
Some key steps of this process include:
- Conducting background research on demographic statistics within a county, city or state.
- Mapping the relevant organizations that conduct civic engagement activities concerning (area or issue specific).
- Identifying key stakeholder contacts to interview in order to identify their engagement practices, challenges they experience, and insights into how to make processes potentially better.
- Hosting solution-focused deliberative sessions with key stakeholders (residents, staff, government officials).
- Developing and implementing a plan for innovating and sustaining change.
The Civic Infrastructure Scan is in tune with – and a great complement to – the League’s Civic Index, a set of diagnostic questions that communities have been using for over 30 years to take stock of engagement, collaboration, leadership, and civic capital. The Civic Index generates a numerical score while the Scan produces qualitative data; the Index gets people thinking and the final local version of the Scan gives them more examples, assets, weaknesses, and opportunities to think about.
One example of a successful civic infrastructure scan is the Community Voices for Health in Monroe County, Indiana. In 2020, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in collaboration with Public Agenda, supported a process for researching and designing how to make decision-making more inclusive, equitable, participatory, and deliberative. The Community Voices for Health in Monroe County worked with local policy, community members and leaders, to create a toolkit and actionable opportunities for community conversations to be held on health-related policy decisions.
The civic infrastructure scan enabled cross-sector collaborations with government departments and elected officials. Building vital connections further aided with outreach efforts in underrepresented communities and in the dissemination of information to community members and stakeholders. The process became a catalyst for inspiring change in public engagement efforts regarding the Monroe County Community Health Improvement Plan in 2021. As a result of the process, a ‘health equity council’ is in place to provide government officials with easy access to communities not typically at the policy-making table so that they are heard.