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By Ashley Trim

Obscene salaries, conflicts of interest, lavish travel expenses . . . I am still on the “Local” page of the paper, right?  I didn’t accidentally flip to “International”? Nope.  This really is about local government in California.  At least other parts of the world have an excuse.  They are still learning this whole democracy thing.  But California is the birthplace of progressive democracy, the home state of sunshine laws.  How do these things happen here?

They happen because transparency only works if people are looking. If the recent scandals teach us anything, it is the importance of keeping our eyes open.

The decision that led to scandal in the City of Bell may have begun behind locked doors in some smoke filled room, but it was approved by ballot.  The problem was that less one percent of Bell’s residents voted on a measure to detach the city from state restrictions on municipal compensation.  It was a decision that impacted every resident of the city.  And it occurred, in large part, because citizens were disengaged.

More recent investigations in cities like Vernon and Irwindale suggest that Bell is not an isolated incident.  Such scandals are not going to go away until citizens in California wake up and take an active role in their communities.

These debacles highlight the importance of “civic engagement,” but until recently, there was no comprehensive evaluation of participation inside and outside the voting booth.  But we have a much clearer picture of how residents of the Golden State participate in the public square thanks to National Conference on Citizenship ‘s annual California Civic Health Index, now in its third year of publication. The recently released 2010 Index shows that while there is room for improvement, Californians have been flexing their “civic muscles” over the last several years.

When we think of civic engagement, the first activity that comes to mind is usually voting.  But the Civic Health Index shows that participation involves much more than showing up at the polls a couple times a year.

Political civic engagement includes activities such as voting, registering to vote and discussing politics. Social civic engagement, on the other hand, involves things we may not think of in terms of civics at all.  It includes eating dinner with friends and family, joining an organization such as a church or sports team, or borrowing your neighbor’s hammer for that recent home improvement project.

Numerous studies have shown a strong correlation between such informal activities and political involvement, and between political and social engagement and responsible government.

At first glance, Californians rank somewhat poorly compared to most states.  We rated 33rd in voter turnout, 42nd in voter registration and only 46th in discussing politics.  On the social engagement side we are 39th in volunteering, 33rd in working with neighbors and 41st when it comes to eating family dinners.

The picture may seem bleak, but the news is not all bad.

Trend lines over the past few years show an increase in rates of voting, volunteering, working with neighbors, and attending public meetings.   Civic participation is increasing nationwide – but growth in California has been more significant than the national average.

The study also shows that California is doing better in many areas when measured against demographically comparable states like New York and Texas.  Ethnic diversity poses its own challenges to civic engagement, as the political scientist Robert Putnam discovered in his 2007 paper, “E Pluribus Unum,” particularly when it comes to language and cultural barriers.

But as David Smith of the National Conference on Citizenship has pointed out, ethnic minorities and especially Latinos often do better in particular areas on the social side of engagement.  The key in a state like California is to build on the particular strengths of each community.

So how do we build on the foundations we’ve set for civic engagement?  There’s no single answer to this question, but there are a number of steps we can take.

For one thing, we can extend civic education.  It is important to teach all of our residents what John Hale of the Center for Civic Education calls the “content, skills and dispositions of civic engagement.  Such lessons must start early in a student’s education.  One year of 8th grade American History and a year of high school civics hardly encourage students in the habits of citizenship

We must also teach municipal officials the key skills of legitimate civic engagement.   Too often local governments see residents as “customers,” and use civic engagement processes as little more than a way to “sell” programs to these customers.  At the Davenport Institute, our goal is to encourage a relationship that sees residents rather as citizens – as partners in real community decision-making.

Finally, we can take the time to foster those precious relationships that create the fabric of our community.  Maybe the place to start improving our state is around the family dinner table.

Ashley Trim is Research Coordinator, Davenport Institute for Public Engagement & Civic Leadership, Pepperdine School of Public Policy