New Policy Paper Calls for Investments in a New Corps of Young Americans to Create and Share Civic Information

June 10, 2011

Contact: Erin Silliman
Communications and Society Program
The Aspen Institute
202.841.4968 | [email protected]

Washington, DC, June 10, 2011—Today the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation released a new policy paper that calls on community and elected leaders to adopt sensible strategies to strengthen civic communication and citizen engagement, including the creation of a new Civic Information Corps that takes advantage of the considerable capacity and creativity of America’s young people and digital media.

Civic Engagement and Community Information: Five Strategies to Revive Civic Communication, by Peter Levine, urges federal, state and local leaders to adopt five specific strategies that are critical to efforts to reverse the troubling trends away from civic engagement in recent decades. Levine is the director of CIRCLE: the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement and research director of the Jonathan Tisch School of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts University.

The strategies include reforming existing federal, state and local programs and institutions that could make significant contributions to the information environment and health of local communities through a Civic Information Corps; engaging young people in building the information and communication capacity of their communities; realigning incentives in higher education so that these institutions serve their communities as  local information hubs; investing in public deliberations; and mapping the civic networks that exist in communities. 

Among the key recommendations, Levine calls for:

  • The Corporation for National and Community Service to dedicate 10% of CNCS grant funding to support service projects that include elements of communications and information provision. Special emphasis should be placed on non-college attending youth age 18-15 who are interested in careers in information technology and media production. Congress should pass the necessary authorization.
  • Colleges and universities to make modest shifts in incentives and investments serve as local information hubs. Because of their physical presence in the community and the information and knowledge work they already do, colleges and universities could make a significant difference in the quantity and quality of civic communication. Journalism, library and engineering schools and departments are well situated to partner with local communities on information-related projects. Other knowledge that is scattered across the institution could be aggregated and shared with the local community.
  • State and local governments to invest more in face-to-face deliberations, which are proven effective in building civic capacity and trust. Federal agencies that are locally-focused, such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Environmental Protection Agency, should support community deliberations for problem solving.

Promoting greater civic engagement and investing in the capacity of citizens to engage with civic information and one another to solve public problems are among the recommendations made by the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy. This paper is the sixth a series focused on implementing the Knight Commission’s 15 recommendations for creating healthy informed communities across the country released in 2009 in a landmark report, Informing Communities. This bipartisan blue ribbon commission called 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 first five papers in the series cover universal broadband, digital and media literacy, public media, government transparency and local online hubs.

“It remains to be seen whether the new communications media alone are adequate to the task of civic renewal. But certainly the old civic order is in deep decay, and we must rebuild our public sphere with new materials, as our predecessors have done several times in the past,” said Peter Levine. “Today’s building blocks include digital technologies and networks, as well as new forms of face-to-face associations,” he noted.

Levine explores the long-term trends in civic engagement as measured by classic factors associated with civic activity, such as attending meetings, reading a newspaper every day and working on a community project. He also addresses what role digital and broadband-enabled technologies are playing or could play as individuals and society move beyond analog-era notions of forming communities and engaging in information sharing and deliberation for the benefit of all. He also addresses some of the limitations of digital technologies as currently used for developing the deliberative culture and capacity for robust public decision-making required by democracy. The five strategies that Levine recommends for boosting local civic engagement include:

  1. Create a Civic Information Corps using the nation’s “service” infrastructure to generate knowledge.
  2. Engage universities as community information hubs.
  3. Invest in face-to-face public deliberations.
  4. Generate public “relational” knowledge.
  5. Exercise civic engagement for public information and knowledge.

Adopting these strategies will enable communities to tap into the expertise and innovative spirit of the public to create public knowledge and culture that benefits the whole community.

“Research shows that young people who use social media like Facebook and Twitter are more likely to volunteer. It’s natural to look to the role that creative young Americans can play in helping to build the  information and communications environments our communities need and revitalize civic engagement,” said Charles M. Firestone, executive director of the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program.

Civic Engagement and Community Information was featured today in a high-level roundtable discussion among a select group of leaders, innovators, advocates and critics from the national, state and local levels at the Chicago Club in downtown Chicago. The roundtable event and release took place just before the start of the first National Action Civics Symposium, “The Power of Action Civics,” hosted by the Chicago-based Mikva Challenge on June 10-11.

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 www.knightfoundation.org.

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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