Many Americans are frustrated with the lack of civility in public life, especially in official settings. This includes many local officials, staff, and community activists. To address this challenge, the Democracy Innovation project of the National Conference on Citizenship (NCoC) is launching an initiative to “Measure, Grow, and Embed Civility” in local governance, thanks to the support of the AAA-ICDR Foundation. 

The two largest associations representing local officials in America, the National League of Cities and the International City/County Management Association, are partnering on the initiative, which will circulate tools and practices for stronger civil discourse as well as tools for measuring progress.

The National Civic League, Bloomberg Center for Public Innovation, Participedia, Kettering Foundation, Cities Fortifying Democracy, and Democracy Cities network will advise the initiative and disseminate resources. The mission of the Democracy Innovation project is to understand, test, and disseminate innovations that can make democracy more participatory, equitable, and productive. It is based at the National Conference on Citizenship, a national, nonprofit, nonpartisan organization chartered by Congress in 1953 to help strengthen civic life in America.  The American Arbitration Association-International Centre for Dispute Resolution Foundation(or AAA-ICDR Foundation) is a nonprofit organization funding projects and proposals that address conflicts in the U.S. and around the world. It focuses on expanding the use of alternative dispute resolution (ADR), improving the process, increasing access to ADR for those who cannot afford it, and sharing knowledge across different cultures. 

“We believe in the power of constructive dialogue, and other aspects of alternative dispute resolution, to change society for the better,” said India Johnson, President and CEO of the AAA-ICDR, Chair of the AAA-ICDR Foundation. “We feel privileged to be able to financially empower nonprofit organizations and initiatives committed to this important work.” “Measuring, Growing, Embedding Civility” will bring proven practices to bear on a problem – uncivil discourse and political polarization – found in many American communities. Experienced practitioners of dispute resolution, public participation, and related fields know that it is possible to sustain civil, productive dialogue among people who have different backgrounds and interests. There are many proven practices for many kinds of situations. In most cases, better civil discourse is possible.  So why aren’t these practices used more often to strengthen civil discourse? 

There are four main reasons:

  1. Most of the public processes and meeting formats used in official interactions between citizens and government fail to employ the principles and practices that encourage civility – and in many cases, they use principles and practices that heighten frustration, conflict, and mistrust. This is particularly true for official public meetings, but it also happens in neighborhood associations, local online forums, and other community settings. 
  2. Local leaders lack measurement tools that would help them evaluate the success of these practices and gauge the progress of civility-promoting efforts. In particular, they need versatile, easy-to-use tools they can use to test citizen reactions to new processes and meeting formats. 
  3. Many people think it is impossible to promote civility because they have very little direct experience of doing it. Many local leaders are simply unaware of those practices or how they could embed them (many people are particularly daunted by the legal side of the problem and are unaware of or not sure how to use the Model City Charter).
  4. Activities that are organized under labels like “building bridges” or “promoting civil discourse” aren’t enough because, while they may use good practices, the labels attract people who are already committed to civility, and already acting in civil ways. Processes that increase civility in the service of other goals, or that are part of the regular routine of governance, may be more effective than initiatives that proclaim civility as the primary or only goal.

 To address these challenges, the initiative will: promote and measure civility by producing a Civility Index; support work in three pilot communities to embed civil discourse practices in public settings; and convene local leaders to refine and disseminate these tools and practices. 

The “Measuring, Growing, Embedding Civility” initiative will benefit from partnering with another grantee of the AAA-ICDR Foundation, the National Institute for Civil Discourse. NICD is launching a conversation component to the CommonSense American (CSA) program: this will provide the everyday Americans who are members of CSA an opportunity to deliberate with each other on issues before Congress via video conference platform.

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