Why do we need civic engagement? Why can’t we leave governing to the government, and expect public institutions (such as schools) to provide public services? Why must many citizens participate?
First, institutions work better when participation is widespread.
For example, Robert Putnam has shown that schools work better in “states where citizens meet, join, vote, and trust [one another].” Putnam finds that such engagement is “by far” a bigger correlate of educational outcomes than is spending on education, teachers’ salaries, class size, or demographics.[ii]
Second, social outcomes are more likely to be just when participation is equitable.
We know that people who are better off participate more. Americans with family incomes under $15,000 voted at half the rate of those with family incomes over $75,000.
And they get results proportionate to their participation. Larry Bartels has found that wealthy constituents have three times more influence than poor ones on U.S. Senators. In fact, Bartels could find no impact—zero impact—of people in the bottom third of the income scale on their own “senators’ roll call votes.”[iii]
Third, some crucial public problems can only be addressed by people’s direct “public work”--not by legislation.[iv]
Effective governments are capable of redistributing money and defining and punishing crimes. But rarely can governments reduce prejudice, change public attitudes toward nature, or deliver personalized care. Even when the state funds healthcare and higher education, the actual work is usually conducted by associations that can be more diverse, participatory, and sensitive than the state.Finally, broad civic engagement is necessary to support a healthy, democratic culture.