When I talk with city staff and council members during my travels, one of the consistent themes I hear is that a significant portion of the public is not familiar with basic civics. This challenge manifests most commonly as:
- An inability to recognize the different roles of local, state and federal government.
- Unfamiliarity with founding principles and rights (like freedom of speech) that are central to society.
- A misunderstanding of how government funding works.
All of this can lead to mutual frustration in interactions between the public and government.
Many of the issues we help our public agency clients address through communications are rooted in this lack of understanding basic civics. I am humbled and reminded that often, before we explain a policy, the civic principles that underlie its decision must first enter the dialogue. I would even go so far as to say that the foundation of a strong communications effort must include a lesson in civics to best serve the public.
If your agency already educates your public via a citizen academy, consider intertwining components that relate fundamental civics to the function of each department. Your participants are likely already engaged if they are in the citizen academy, but you can’t ‘go too basic’ when covering the expansive topic of civics.
In a different scenario, when a member of the public runs into an issue that galvanizes him–in anger or support–it presents an opportunity to educate on the policy at hand.
Do your part and harness opportunities to share your wisdom. Together, we can help close the civics understanding gap.