Civic education programs

Civic engagement is a necessity. Without it, democracy can’t exist. People’s voices can’t be heard unless they speak and, without their support, local government organizations can’t move forward with initiatives that better communities and the lives of constituents. Unfortunately, according to data from Statistics Canada, only 35% of Canadians are involved with civic-minded organizations of any kind.A key to solving this issue and bringing these numbers back up relies on education, education that through programs and resources encourages community members to become actively involved in local government. And, the best way to ensure this education is to provide it.

More and more local governments are taking this cue and developing their own civic education plans for the community. Municipal governments in cities like Toronto and Vancouver are in fact offering civics classes to the public, creating public service and awareness campaigns and hosting educational events.

In the U.S., some government organizations are taking civic education one step further and attempting to reach out to constituents before they can even vote. Take North Carolina, for example. They have developed seminars for educators that offer content and information needed to teach students about state and local government functions and processes. Since its debut, the program has provided assistance to more than 1,500 teachers, distributed grants throughout the state to programs supporting civic education and developed a database with lesson plans for teachers and community leaders to use. Wisconsin, Connecticut and other states have since developed similar programs, too.

Perhaps this appeals to your government organization or maybe your organization is looking to revitalize an existing civic education program. Either way, we’ve got some possible pointers for you:

Identify the need
Before allocating resources to developing a civic education program, take stock of your organization’s needs and the needs of community members. Identify potential problem areas that could benefit from structured conversations in some way. Perhaps there is a confusing referendum or amendment on an upcoming ballot or local utility bills are difficult to understand. Maybe the last few years have seen dismal voter turnout or time and time again certain grants or aid go unapplied for because no one knows they exist. It may take some time to connect the dots or survey community members, but it will help your organization determine what, if any, programming would be useful to your community.

Do something
After your organization has a better idea of what degree of need there is, create an action plan to develop the civic education program. Your organization might choose an ongoing program in the form of seminars or classes or develop a campaign surrounding a specific topic or maybe just declare a certain day of the year as local civic education day, during which your organization hosts a series of events throughout your community.

Consider partnerships and grants
Partnering with like-minded organizations, such as schools, universities, local history centres and humanities commissions, will allow your efforts greater opportunity for exposure with an often shared fiscal burden. Another benefit of these partnerships is an expanded pool of experts to teach. Many foundations and government organizations, such as the Manitoba Grants for Innovation in Citizenship Education, provide funding through grants specific to civic education programs.

Spread the word
To further gain exposure of civic education efforts and to maximize attendance at programs, your organization will want to gear up with a communications plan and get the word out. Communications can range from full-on campaigning with television, radio and print ads, to grassroots tactics like:

  • Utilizing direct mail or e-mail marketing. Send promotions with a pack of Sticky Notes with the event or program date, time and location written on the first note. Or, canvass neighborhoods to leave behind value tote bags filled with information on upcoming events, local resources and an explanation of the need for education.
  • Stationing volunteers in high-traffic areas to distribute flyers and a memorable takeaway item like these branded Adva-Lite Key-Lights or Stress Balls to build awareness.
  • Creating a video of a city leader asking passersby questions about the local government or specific procedures and processes. Distribute on your website and by social media as a way to illustrate the need for education. The last shot could promote an upcoming event or drive viewers to a Web page for the answers.

Reward participation
At civic education programs or events, participants will no doubt walk away with valuable information that will serve to make them more productive community members. Give them something more tangible to walk away with, too, as a thank-you for participating and as a way to keep the topics top of mind. Try Baseball Hats emblazoned with your city or province’s logo or Sport Bottles that can be used long after a program or event has ended.

After all is said and done, be sure to measure the participation in programs with the changes in the identified need, like voter turnout. Then, report out to your community and continue to provide services and resources that boost education and spark participation.

Civics Education Programs Around the Country.GOVERNING: Government News on Politics, Management & Finance. Web. 13 May 2010.

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