Many of the groups supporting President Biden’s stimulus bill touted its capacity to build “civic infrastructure.” The resulting American Rescue Plan does include elements—like support for broadband access, child care, and volunteerism—that would seem to help Americans participate in public life. Is this enough? What exactly is civic infrastructure anyway, and what more might we need to do to strengthen it?
In Public Participation for 21st Century Democracy, Tina Nabatchi and I defined civic infrastructure as “the laws, processes, institutions, and associations that support regular opportunities for people to connect with each other, solve problems, make decisions, and celebrate community.” Civic infrastructure can include: parent-teacher associations, neighborhood online networks, volunteer fairs, crowdfunding programs, lending circles, voter registration drives, participatory budgeting processes, pothole-reporting apps, meetings and platforms that give people a chance to give input on policy.
As the Our Common Purpose report explains, civic infrastructure provides the scaffolding for all the ways that people engage in public life, from voting to volunteering to having a say on public decisions.
Civic infrastructure provides the scaffolding for all the ways people engage in public life.
Research in a range of fields shows that strong, ongoing connections between residents, robust relationships between policymakers and their constituents, accessible information on public issues, and positive attachments between citizens and their communities are highly correlated with a variety of positive outcomes, from increased public health to greater K-12 student success to resilience in the face of natural disasters.
Howard Law School professor Harold McDougall was one of the first to champion “civic infrastructure.” He used it to draw a direct connection between engagement and equity. In his 1993 book Black Baltimore: A New Theory of Community, McDougall described the civic infrastructure created and maintained by residents of African American neighborhoods. Over many years, church groups, housing advocacy committees, social workers who built networks among their clients, and other “base communities,” as McDougall calls them, helped Black Baltimoreans build their own power and improve their quality of life
In our neighborhoods and at the national level, American civic infrastructure is in poor shape. As Yuval Levin and others point out, citizens have lost faith in institutions of all kinds. Our research at Public Agenda affirms that even before the January 6 attack on the Capital, few Americans felt that our democracy was functioning well and 40 percent of Americans said the design and structure of our nation’s government need significant change no matter whom we elect to represent us.
But Americans are particularly likely to voice strong support for Democratic principles, compared to people from other countries in a recent 34-nation Pew survey. We already have an infrastructure, of sorts, for public engagement: our institutions maintain a number of official opportunities for participation, which already take up a great deal of time, money, and political capital: picture your typical public meeting, where citizens have three minutes at the microphone to address their public officials. Most of these official avenues for engagement are frustrating for both citizens and officials—they may even reduce trust in government.
Most of this existing civic infrastructure does not support newer, more successful kinds of engagement. It is not suited to the needs of citizens or officials and it is out of step with the way people live today. Across party lines, Public Agenda’s research found that Americans favor democratic reforms that would give them greater authority and voice, along with more equitable, deliberative, collaborative relationships with their governments. These reforms and practices include engagement commissions, large-scale deliberative processes, serious games, participatory budgeting, citizen’s assemblies, SMS-enabled discussions, youth voice programs, and many others. These kinds of reforms have already been instituted in other countries, from Iceland to Taiwan to Colombia.
Upgrading our civic infrastructure is a promising way to help rebuild both our economy and our democracy. The American Rescue Plan seems to be a good start, but it is probably not enough. Next, we should assess our existing infrastructure, ask the public what they think, and decide which elements of our systems could be renovated and which new elements might be added. In an obscure term, we might find solutions to many of the problems we face.