The British journalist, Harold Evans, once commented, “For America to work, Americans have to participate. If they don’t pay attention, they’re going to get screwed.” This is, albeit crudely, true of America, but it is even more applicable to the Golden State, where Californians appear to sit in stunned silence as we witness (from a distance) the slow motion train wreck that is the state budget process. This alienation from the gears of government – both in Sacramento and locally – has been decried from many quarters, but, for the first time, a statewide report has just been released quantifying disappointingly low levels of civic participation among Californians.

Co-sponsored by the organization I lead, Common Sense California (CSC), and produced by the Congressionally chartered, National Conference on Citizenship (NCoC), the “2008 California Civic Health Index,” measures citizen engagement in several ways. NCoC had published a national version of this study last fall, but the California study, which involved a representative sample of over 400 Californians has just come off the press. The main results reveal that even with the higher levels of participation in the 2008 elections, Californians vastly underperform the rest of the country in habits like volunteering and participating in local problem solving.

Significant results from the study are:

• Californians placed 45th nationally in volunteering, with 23% saying they had participated in some sort of unpaid service.

• Californians ranked 44th nationally in attending civic meetings, with just 6.7% saying that they had done so.

• Californians placed 45th nationally in “working on community problems” with just 5.1% reporting they had done so.

When asked what kinds of programs Californians might support to increase civic participation, the highest vote-getters included earning tuition monies through community service (82%), mandatory service-learning for high school students (73%), and better civics education (69%). Ironically, even with a solid youth representation in the survey sample, most of the recommendations essentially amount to dishing our civic responsibilities onto the youngest generations. Interestingly, given all the reporting to the contrary, the Index makes clear that even with the large turnout for the last election cycle, few Californians plan on furthering their involvement: “citizens’ responses to the election vary depending on their age and partisanship; and half of Californians do not expect to do anything after the election to address issues raised in the campaign.”

While the report itself does not go into reasons for these low civic participation levels, over these past few years studies and stories have offered culprits ranging from the amount of time Californians spend in traffic to our high levels of ethnic diversity. Harvard sociologist, Robert Putnam, who was one of the advisors on the Index, ignited controversy with his 2007 study, “E Pluribus Unum,” which found an inverse relationship between levels of ethnic diversity and civic participation. His research, which analyzed 41 cities across the country found that Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Oakland were three of the four lowest scoring cities on his self-developed participation gauge (the other was Minneapolis). Still, Putnam concluded (and I agree with him), that California’s diversity can also be its strength, but the state’s civic leaders should be aware of the unprecedented challenges they face.

In conversations with city leaders around the state over this past year, I have heard another, and I would argue more pertinent reason for this chasm between citizens and our governing institutions. Speaking with a city leader in Ventura County recently he said, “I think most ‘everyday’ Americans have moved from being citizens to ‘customers.’ Frankly, in many ways, this is our fault in government, when we undertook a major ‘TQM’ (Total Quality Management) push back in the 80’s, where we considered everyone who came to City Hall a client.” This perspective is supported by research undertaken by the Kettering Foundation, which found, “for nearly 20 years, public administrators treated the public as customers. This approach defined the citizen as a receiver of services rather than a participant in democracy.”

Interestingly, most of the officials I speak with on this subject do not see us returning to the earlier “town hall democracy,” where citizens participated in most many local policy decisions. Still, there are some signs that, at least at the city level, governments are engaging citizens in local decisions. Many of these efforts have come as a result of incredible budget pressures, but they are happening.

What does the future hold? One city manager I spoke with said he believed, “we’re moving from customers to ‘customer citizens,’” a framework in which there will be segmented services (motor vehicles, various permit application processes) where governments will continue to practice a vendor/client relationship, but on other policy questions – ranging from land use decisions to service prioritization – citizens will be actively solicited for their participation and feedback. This is something that is already happening in cities like La Habra, Salinas, Morro Bay, Brea and others. The gap between citizens and our civic institutions is wide, but all good bridges are built from both banks.