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

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

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.