The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once cynically called involving citizens in local government decisions "a device whereby public officials induce non-public individuals to act in a way the public officials desire," and a Federal official was overheard saying that in civic engagement, he followed the "3 I's" : "Include, inform, ignore." In the midst of this apathy, can citizens be involved in ways that truly inform elected and administrative policy-makers? Yes, but first it is important to know what legitimate civic engagement is not. Michael R. Wood from the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation frames the discussion this way:
"sometimes different notions of 'public relations' are included under the umbrella of civic engagement. This confusion can lead to misplaced expectations and unaccomplished goals - by those involved. Consider when a public agency might want the community to have a better understanding of what it does and why. In this case, basic communications are in order. At other times, elected officials might want to rally the community behind a sales tax increase (or decrease) or a mill levy to raise resources to fulfill their responsibilities. These circumstances clearly call for advocacy. Civic engagement is appropriate when an agency is seeking to learn from the public. But learning is more than simply soliciting input, adding up the responses, and using the data to make a decision that is allegedly supported by citizens. It is about gaining and using public knowledge."
In similar ways, civic organizations can also approach citizens with pre-conceived opinions about a given policy issues, and then approach governing institutions as an adversary, rather than as a partner. Public relations and advocacy are important elements of our representative democratic system, whether practiced by institutions or civil society groups, but they should not be confused with citizen engagement.
The Davenport Institute defines "legitimate" civic engagement as having four main ingredients. In different contexts, budgets and timelines can affect the degree to which these elements can be developed; these are not quests of political science "purity." Nonetheless, we believe the following pieces should be integrated to the degree possible.