My good friend John Creighton has been working on an idea that outlines how civic life has changed fundamentally. Whereas we used to define civic engagement in terms  of how citizens relate to institutions, there’s been a power shift away from that. The action is all happening as individuals relate to one another.

That seems right on to me, and it has spurred a number of thoughts, some of which I will go into in the future. For now, though, it got me thinking about institutions and civic engagement.

Jail by flickr user the_kid_cl

"Jail" by flickr user the_kid_cl

Many of us in the “civic participation” field spend time worrying, and trying to measure, how “engaged” citizens are. Are they voting? Attending meetings? Writing their members of congress? Volunteering? And so forth.

But what if we have that relationship exactly backwards? Think of it this way: Citizens do what they do. They live their daily lives, they support themselves and one another economically, they get together to solve problems when they must. There’s a a whole range of connected activities that take place that have nothing to do with institutions.

But when we say “civic engagement,” the embedded assumption is that citizens need to engage with some system, defined in large part by institutional structures. But instead, let’s try measuring (and worrying about) how institutions are engaging with citizens. By that measure, I fear many institutions are not at all “civically engaged” — even (maybe especially) the ones that are in the civic engagement business!

Too many organizations think that by issuing a press release or starting a website they’ve somehow “engaged.” But meanwhile, citizens, going about their lives, are blissfully unaware of the the attempted communication. Us public-life junkies are Twittering to one another and starting Facebook groups — and we’re the only members. We’re all following each other.

We shake our heads and cluck our tongues at civic apathy, and worry about how to “get people more engaged.” Perhaps we ourselves are the ones who need to be better engaged.