New Policy Paper Highlights Need for Civic Innovation, Attention to Community Concerns to Build a Healthy Information Environment

October 17, 2011

Contact: Erin Silliman
Communications and Society Program
The Aspen Institute
202.736.5818 |

Washington, DC, October 17, 2011—The Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation today released a white paper calling on America’s local leaders to adopt civic innovation strategies to spur the development of news and information environments that address real community needs. Assessing Community Information Needs: A Practical Guide, is a guide for elected officials, civic leaders and motivated citizens to understand how to integrate useful practices for assessing and building informed, engaged communities with the civic capacity necessary to deal with today’s challenges.

In Assessing Community Information Needs: A Practical Guide, author Richard C. Harwood observes that communities, states and the nation need new approaches that allow community members to engage more fully with each other as well as the schools, businesses and other organizations that contribute to the health and stability of a community. High-speed broadband, news websites, social media and local online hubs are important for expanding opportunities to participate in public life. But, in order for these technologies to be truly transformative, communities need to create a receptive environment.

“Free flowing news and information is essential to the healthy functioning of communities. However, you can’t fix or improve anything unless you know what’s falling short, or how or why life can be better. Assessing Community Information Needs: A Practical Guide is a fine addition to a growing set of resources, including the Knight Foundation’s Community Information Toolkit, that enable communities to determine whether their local news and information ecologies are healthy and understand why that matters to the community,” said Mayur Patel, Vice President of Strategy and Assessment of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

The white paper is being featured today at a roundtable discussion at the Aspen Institute, where 30 leaders of national and local civic organizations, communications related businesses and nonprofits, and foundations will debate the best ways to implement the paper’s strategies for civic innovation and renewal.  The roundtable will be streamed live at today from 12:30 p.m. until 3:00 p.m. (Eastern Time), and on Twitter using hashtag #knightcomm.

Harwood urges citizens and community leaders to go beyond “simply doing good planning” to develop a mindset and practice of innovation and “turning outward” toward the community.  To do so, Harwood proposes a set of nine strategies, governed by four guiding principles, to help people in a community take effective action. The paper also includes a checklist for getting started.

The following recommendations are among the key elements of his nine step plan:

  • Engage the community early on and focus on core community needs. Being in the community and hearing people talk about their community can yield valuable insights that lead to refocusing existing efforts, creating new types of content, developing new networks of partners, and building a more useful information infrastructure.
  • Actively cultivate boundary-spanning organizations and groups.  Public and commercial media, community foundations, public libraries, and local United Ways are among the groups that bring people together across dividing lines, incubate new ideas and spin them off and reflect the aspirations and concerns of the community. These intermediary organizations should play an essential role in assessing and building healthy information environments.
  • Tell the community’s story of change. Told well and over time, such stories can help a community create a “can-do narrative” about its ability to tackle change and invite people to step forward.
  • Ensure enough entry points for people to engage. There must be sufficient “on-ramps” for people to participate in the information environment and community life. Technological on-ramps like high-speed broadband are important, but so are a variety of cultural and social access points.

“Together these strategies and guideposts allow you to focus on relevance, re-building and re-engaging the community. This white paper gives people support around what it takes to act on what matters most,” said Harwood.

“The digital revolution has given Americans unprecedented opportunities to engage with information and with one another. Innovation in civic practices should go hand-in-hand with digital innovations to build the local capacity to meet today’s most pressing challenges,” said Charlie Firestone, executive director of the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program.

Assessing Community Information Needs: A Practical Guide is the final paper in a series of eight white papers focused on implementing the 15 recommendations of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy. This blue ribbon commission set out a vision for creating healthy informed communities in its landmark 2009 report, Informing Communities, which included a call for developing systematic measures of community information ecologies and studying how such ecologies affect social outcomes. The other white papers in the series cover universal broadband, digital and media literacy, public media, government transparency, local online hubs, civic engagement and local journalism.

Richard Harwood is the founder of The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, an organization recognized for its approach to breaking down barriers and empowering people to make real progress in improving their communities.


The Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy was a blue ribbon panel of seventeen media, policy and community leaders that met in 2008 and 2009. Its purpose was to assess the information needs of communities, and recommend measures to help Americans better meet those needs. Its Report, Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age, was the first major commission on media since the Hutchins Commission in the 1940’s and the Kerner and Carnegie Commissions of the 1960’s.

The Commission’s aims were to maximize the availability and flow of credible local information; to enhance access and capacity to use the new tools of knowledge and exchange; and to encourage people to engage with information and each other within their geographic communities. Among its 15 recommendations the Commission argues for universal broadband, open networks, transparent government, a media and digitally literate populace, vibrant local journalism, public media reform, and more local public engagement.

The Knight Commission is a project of the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation advances journalism in the digital age and invests in the vitality of communities where the Knight brothers owned newspapers. The Knight Foundation focuses on projects that promote informed and engaged communities and lead to transformational change. For more, visit

The Aspen Institute mission is twofold: to foster values-based leadership, encouraging individuals to reflect on the ideals and ideas that define a good society, and to provide a neutral and balanced venue for discussing and acting on critical issues. The Aspen Institute does this primarily in four ways: seminars, young-leader fellowships around the globe, policy programs, and public conferences and events. The Institute is based in Washington, DC; Aspen, Colorado; and on the Wye River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and has an international network of partners.

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