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Sociology & Criminal Justice Studies


Civic health is a community’s economic, civic, and social infrastructure – its capacity to solve its problems. This paper explores how contemporary local governments address the opportunities and challenges facing their communities and how local governments could utilize civic engagement to enhance civic health. It also evaluates the status of Newark, Delaware’s civic health and offers pragmatic steps Newark’s government can take to enhance the community’s civic health. Democratic governance is the 21st century engine for communities like Newark, Delaware to enhance their civic health. Collaborative and inclusive governance can improve a community’s abilities to solve problems. The Newark community can enhance its civic health through democratic governance practices.

Problem solving in contemporary society presents new challenges for governments. Governments can no longer effect change without engaging citizens, nonprofits, and the marketplace. Citizen involvement tends to be low for issues of broad community interest, while involvement is robust but often unproductive for issues of self-interest. Governments are increasingly constrained in their agency to solve problems. To address these concerns, governments are turning to democratic governance, governing that is participatory, inclusive, deliberative, and collaborative. Democratic governance involves shared leadership, with government often acting as a convener. Examples of short-term democratic governance initiatives in Delaware include Newark’s Building Responsibility Campus/Community Coalition as well as the consensus-based process used to formulate regulations for Delaware’s Coastal Zone Act, among others.

Democratic governance is a means to achieve greater community capacity to solve problems, or greater civic health. According to the National Civic League, civic health can be measured through four components: having a community vision, fulfilling new roles for community governance, working together as a community, and the community’s problem solving ability. Community governance involves significant and collaborative roles for businesses, citizens, local government, and non-profits. Working together involves bridging diversity, crossing jurisdictional lines, reaching consensus, and sharing information. Problem solving involves building community leadership, educating citizens to meet community challenges, and learning from experience.

This paper evaluates Newark’s civic health based upon the results of a civic health survey. The survey was administered to 74 stakeholders from a cross-section of the community. Seventy-seven percent of surveys were returned. Overall, survey takers evaluated the civic health of Newark as being close to adequate but not terrific (the average response to survey statements regarding the civic health components fell between “Neither agree nor disagree” and “Agree”).

Three “civic strengths” were identified, areas in which there was near consensus that Newark is doing well as it relates to civic health indicators. These included that the Downtown Newark Partnership is active and highly visible in the Newark community, that the Newark government is responsible and accountable to its citizens, and that businesses in the Newark community participate in broad community improvement efforts.

Four “growing edges” were identified, areas in which most survey takers felt Newark is not doing well as it relates to civic health indicators. These included a need to develop and communicate Newark’s community vision and desired future, a need to build leadership in the community, most citizens not participating in neighborhood or civic organizations, and a lack of awareness regarding the role of non-profits in the Newark community. Three areas for further discussion were also identified which had conflicting survey results; these included bridging university-community relations, bridging diversity, and crossing jurisdictional lines.

Democratic governance is being used comprehensively as an on-going practice to broadly help communities address their opportunities and challenges. Furthermore, democratic governance tools are being used in other communities to address challenges similar to Newark’s “growing edges.” Community visioning is a well established democratic governance tool communities use to develop, communicate, and implement a community vision and work toward their desired future. The first well-known community visioning process occurred in 1984 in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Many communities have leadership development programs. These can range from Neighborhood Leadership Institutes (empowering civic leaders in community organizing) to Citizens Academies (which teach citizens about how their local government operates) to Youth Councils (which directly involve a community’s youth in community problem-solving). Neighborhood involvement has been addressed through neighborhood council systems, which have legislative authority and institutional support; an example of such a program is Southlake, Texas’s Southlake Program for the Involvement of Neighborhoods.

There are a number of pragmatic democratic governance techniques that can enhance Newark’s civic health. Bridging non-profits with the rest of the community can involve creating a non-profit directory and capitalizing on already existing community events such as Community Day. Communities have also completed extensive outreach to discuss the issues and challenges facing non-profits; an example of this is “One Voice Arizona,” the results from the Alliance of Arizona Nonprofits’ town hall meetings that involved community collaboration.

Democratic governance, which involves cross-sector participation and the integral inclusion of the community in decision-making, is an alternative to traditional government-as-usual which often fails to create sustainable change. The civic health of the community of Newark, Delaware has both civic strengths and growing edges. Democratic governance tools can address the areas that need improvement and help Newark capitalize on its strengths. Furthermore, a systematic shift towards a democratic framework of governance would enhance the Newark community’s ability to accomplish its goals. Giving priority to civic health and embracing democratic governance can lead to addressing problems comprehensively as well as transforming the fabric of our society into livable, sustainable, participatory communities.