Center for Civic Education

Articles, Papers, and Speeches

Project Citizen: An Introduction

Margaret Stimmann Branson, Associate Director
Center for Civic Education

February 1999


Societies have long had an interest in the ways in which their young are prepared for citizenship and in how they learn to take part in civic life. Today that interest might better be described as a concern—in fact as a growing concern, particularly in democratic societies. There is evidence aplenty that no country, including the United States, has achieved the level of understanding and acceptance of the rights and responsibilities among the totality of its citizens that is required for the maintenance and improvement of a constitutional democracy.

In the past decade we have witnessed dramatic demands for freedom on the part of peoples from Asia to Africa and from Central and Eastern Europe to Latin America. And as we have seen one totalitarian or authoritarian regime after another toppled and fledgling democratic governments replace them, we may have become too optimistic about the future of democracy. We also may have become too complacent, too sure of democracy's robustness or of its long term viability. History, however, teaches us that few countries have sustained democratic governments for prolonged periods, a lesson that we are sometimes inclined to forget. Americans, of course, can take pride from the fact that they live in the world's oldest constitutional democracy and that the philosophical foundations underlying their political institutions serve as a model for aspiring peoples around the world. The "shot heard 'round the world" two centuries ago at the opening of the American Revolution continues to resound today. It should remind us all that free institutions are among humanity's highest achievements and worthy of our full energies and earnest devotion to preserve.

We must remember, however, that if we want to sustain constitutional democracy, civic education is essential. The habits of the mind, as well as "habits of the heart," those dispositions that inform the democratic ethos, are not inherited. As Alexis de Toqueville pointed out, each new generation is a new people that must acquire the knowledge, learn the skills, and develop the dispositions or traits of private and public character that undergird a constitutional democracy. Those dispositions must be fostered and nurtured by word and study and by the power of example. Democracy is not a "machine that would go of itself," but must be consciously reproduced, one generation after another.

Civic education, therefore, is—or should be—a prime concern. There is no more important task than the development of an informed, effective, and responsible citizenry. Democracies are sustained by citizens who have the requisite knowledge, skills, and dispositions. Absent a reasoned commitment on the part of its citizens to the fundamental values and principles of democracy, a free and open society cannot succeed. It is imperative, therefore, that educators, policymakers, and members of civil society make the case and ask for the support of civic education from all segments of society and from the widest range of institutions and governments.

It is relatively easy for a society to produce technically competent people. But the kind of society you and I want to live in and the kind of government we want to have requires effort and commitment on the part of its citizens. We want a society and a government in which

Making that kind of society, that kind of government a reality is the most important challenge we face and the most important work we could undertake.

What is civic education?

Civic Education in a democracy is education in self government. Democratic self government means that citizens are actively involved in their own governance; they do not just passively accept the dicta of others or acquiesce to the demands of others. In fact, some contemporary political philosophers contend that citizenship should be considered "an office of government," like any other with its own responsibilities. That citizenship is an office is an idea often expressed by Americans. Both Harry Truman and Jimmy Carter when they retired from the presidency and returned to their native states said that they then were going to assume the highest office in the land—that of citizen.

Civic education in a democratic society most assuredly needs to be concerned with promoting understanding of the ideals of democracy and a reasoned commitment to the values and principles of democracy. That does not mean, however, that democracy should be presented as utopia. Democracy is not utopian, and citizens need to understand that lest they become cynical, apathetic, or simply withdraw from political life when their unrealistic expectations are not met. To be effective civic education must be realistic; it must address the central truths about political life. The American Political Science Association (APSA) recently formed a Task Force on Civic Education. Its statement of purpose calls for more realistic teaching about the nature of political life and a better understanding of "the complex elements of `the art of the possible'." The APSA report faults existing civic education because all too often it seems unable to counter the belief that, in politics, one either wins or loses, and to win means getting everything at once, now! The sense that politics can always bring another day, another chance to be heard, to persuade and perhaps to gain part of what one wants, is lost. Political education today seems unable to teach the lessons of political history: Persistent civic engagement—the slow, patient building of first coalitions and then majorities—can generate social change.

A message of importance, therefore, is that politics need not, indeed must not, be a zero-sum game. The idea that "winner takes all" has no place in a democracy, because if losers lose all they will opt out of the democratic game. Sharing is essential in a democratic society—the sharing of power, of resources, and of responsibilities. In a democratic society the possibility of affecting political and social change is ever present, if citizens have the knowledge, the skills, and the will to bring about change. That knowledge, those skills and the will—or the necessary traits of private and public character—are the products of a good civic education.

Why Project Citizen is an important program

You are here to take part in an institute to learn more about Project Citizen. It is one of the most promising civic education programs for young adolescents. Project Citizen is currently in use in countries throughout the world—from the Czech Republic to Mexico—from Bosnia to Russia, and from Kazakhstan to Jordan and Israel. I believe that there are four reasons why Project Citizen finds favor with young people, their teachers, and civic leaders in so many places in the world.

First let me list those reasons, then I would like to talk with you briefly about each one.

The four reasons why Project Citizen is an important and well-received undertaking are these:

  1. Because the program is tailored to the interests and needs of early adolescents. Programs that engage the interests of the young and allow them to develop the skills of citizenship not only are rare, such programs are desperately needed. As educators—and even as parents—we often fail to capitalize on the abilities, ideas, and energy of the young. We do not treat the young as the assets—the human and civic resources—that they are or can be.

  2. Because our chronic inattention to local and state government has cost us dearly. Our preoccupation with national—and even international—government makes government seem to be something removed from us and our everyday lives, something about which we need do little. But the problems at home—where we live, in our schools, neighborhoods, our villages, towns, and cities, are very real and immediate. As citizens we can bring about changes for the better where we live, if we know how to go about effecting change.

  3. Because there is no better way to teach the cycle of public policy-making or to demonstrate to young people how they can and why they should take part in the process.

  4. Because research attests to the effectiveness and worth of Project Citizen.

Treating the young as a civic resource. Now let's take a closer look at the first reason for using Project Citizen. At present we are not capitalizing on the natural interest of young adolescents in political and civic life, nor are we treating them as a civic resource—as assets to the community.

Many research studies—those of Judith Torney-Purta, Richard Niemi, Robert Coles, Michael Delli-Carpini and others—document the interest of early adolescents in civic life. It is a time when they are forming attitudes and embracing values that they will adhere to throughout their lives. It is a period when they question all adults and all authority. They demand to know more than just what the rules or the laws are—they want to know how and why those rules and laws were made and if they are being equitably applied. They want to know why we have governments and how and why the institutions of government operate as they do.

Young adolescents are moving from concrete to abstract thinking. They have great concern about right and wrong, as well as a need for themselves to determine what is right and what is wrong. What mother, father, teacher, or other authorities say no longer suffices.

Early adolescence is a time when the young want and need real world experiences. They want to explore the world in which they live—to try on different roles—to find out who they are and what they can do.

What better way to provide those experiences than through a program like Project Citizen in which the young explore the world in which they actually live—their neighborhoods, school, community, state and local governments, and the associations that constitute civil society. Adolescents get to see for themselves how things work—what people say and what they do—what is right and what is wrong in how the institutions of government operate. They need to see and reflect on their experiences, because that is how they acquire the knowledge to develop the skills and summon the will to improve the world in which they live.

Civic life and engagement are not just things one reads, talks or thinks about, but also things one does or experiences. We've long known that in teaching the natural sciences abstract theory cannot be fully understood or appreciated in the absence of hands-on experience in the laboratory or in the field. The same is true of civic education. Students need properly designed and implemented experiences in civic life that cannot only give greater meaning to or otherwise enrich the factual and theoretical content of lectures and textbooks, but can also provide them with first hand experience in civic responsibility, leadership, and collaboration. As students explore problems that they have identified in their own communities, they are afforded countless opportunities to explore concepts such as truth, justice, authority, and responsibility. They also are afforded countless opportunities to deliberate fundamental value issues such as competition versus collaboration, self-interest versus the common good, material versus spiritual values, and rights versus responsibilities.

We need to provide our young people with challenging civic experiences. We need to treat them as valued members of the community, as civic resources whose energy, idealism, and ideas are essential. Young people want more than to "be done unto"—more than to be told "wait till you grow up" or "wait till you are old enough to vote." They deserve more than to be left to their own devices or to sterile passive pursuits such as aimless gatherings or watching endless hours of television or even sitting alone at a computer terminal. The youth of any nation are a great resource. We need their service as citizens. The young want to feel they belong to the community and that they are valued for themselves and for what they can contribute to making life better for us all.

Project Citizen focuses on local governments. Now let us turn to the second reason for the use of Project Citizen. The program helps to correct our chronic inattention to the governments that are closest to our lives. In the United States, as well as in other countries, traditional history, civics, and government classes spend a disproportionate amount of time studying the national government. Very little time is devoted to state or regional governments and even less to local government. That is paradoxical for several reasons. First, local self-governance is a keystone of democracy. In a democracy the people themselves are expected to participate in identifying and acting upon problems in their own communities. They are expected to deliberate and to serve in varying leadership roles. It is in the villages, towns, and cities that the goal of government of, by, and for the people is more readily obtainable. Students and adult citizens need to be more knowledgeable about and attentive to government where they live and work not only because that government has an impact on their daily lives, but because it is the government that they can most easily observe, monitor, and influence. Government in a democracy is not a far-away monolith. It is not something "they" do. Rather it is something that "we"—the people—do. It is—or should be—a home-grown effort in which every citizen can participate.

To give you some idea of how wide the reach of democratic local government can be, let me use the United States as an example. In contrast to one national government and 50 state governments, there are more than 83,000 separate local governments, according to the 1990 census. Even more impressive is the fact that the United States has more elected positions at the local level than any other nation in the world. Conservative estimates put that number in excess of 500,000. That means that those half-million servants of the people are accessible to the people by a local phone call or a personal visit. Thanks to "sunshine laws" those elected officials must conduct the public's business in public meetings open to any citizen—and that is how it should be in a democratic society.

The failure of schools to devote time and attention to the study of local government and local civil society organizations is hard to explain. Students' daily lives are affected by countless decisions made at the local level by town councils; school boards; recreation, police, and planning commissions; and municipal utility districts. What is more, students can observe first hand all those decision-making bodies at work, and they can, with appropriate instruction, learn how to monitor and influence them.

A final reason for calling into question the lack of attention to local government and civil society is that they afford students and teachers a laboratory in which they can develop and practice the participatory skills that are essential for informed, effective citizenship. When students join with their peers, neighbors, or an interest group to effect changes that they believe will improve the quality of life in their school or community, they are learning essential elements of democratic civic action. When students "shadow" or accompany an elected or appointed government official, or a leader in a civil society organization in the conduct of their daily business, they are learning about leadership in a democracy. They also are learning about the exercise of authority and the limitations on power that constitutional democracy imposes. And when students are engaged in analyzing local issues and in evaluating, taking, and defending positions regarding those issues, they are learning about the importance of a free marketplace of ideas in a constitutional democracy.

Because of current inadequate instruction about local government and local issues, young people often are ill-informed about the source and nature of many specific local problems and about how those problems might be remedied. In that respect they are not unlike many adult citizens.

Another area about which both students and adult citizens are ill-informed is the relationship of one level of government to another. The false analogy of levels of government to a wedding or layer cake is often used. In that analogy, national, state, and local governments are conceived as separate layers that could stand alone as viable government. But today's governments are interdependent. The interrelatedness of modern institutions and problems is a political, economic, and social reality. Intergovernmental cooperation is required to deal with many significant issues such as air and water pollution, transportation, education, healthcare, crime, and degradation of the environment.

Project Citizen not only stimulates students' interest in and understanding of the problems of their own communities, Project Citizen also teachers them how to go about trying to solve those problems. It demonstrates to them that government of, by, and for the people is not just a slogan. Government of, by, and for the people is obtainable, if citizens acquire the knowledge, use their skills, and have the will to effect change.

Introducing students to public policy-making. A third reason for commending Project Citizen to you is that there is no better way to introduce students to the cycle of public policy-making and to inculcate a disposition to take part in the process.

There is no hard and fast, single, accepted definition of public policy. Perhaps scholar Larry N. Gerston's definition of public policy is as usable and understandable as any. Public policy, he says, is "the combination of basic decisions, commitments, and actions made by those who hold or affect government positions of authority." These decisions, commitments, and actions result from the interplay or interactions among those who demand change, those who make decisions, and those who are affected by the policy in question. In other words, policy decisions do not come out of thin air. Neither do they emanate in a democracy from government officials acting alone. Rather policy emerges as the result of the information provided to and pressures brought to bear on policymakers. Public policies spring from issues that trouble a segment or segments of society to the point of taking action.

Public policy-making is a dynamic, not a static process. It is a continuous, never-ending process. Public policy-making has been compared to a merry-go-round or a ferris wheel because while they continue to go around and around people also get on and off at will. Public policy-making has also been compared to a kaleidoscope's ever-changing picture arrangement in that it is in a state of perpetual transition. In politics change also is constant.

As we have said, public policy-making is not a neat, fixed, step-by-step progression. It is a cycle, a continuous process that can be entered at any time. For the sake of better understanding, however, we can speak of components of public policy-making from inception to conclusion. I'd like to briefly describe these components, asking you to bear in mind that they do not follow neatly one upon the other. Neither are they sterile or antiseptic. Public policy-making concerns contentious matters, it excites argument, even strong passions, because it is laced with conflict about political values.

For purposes of analysis let's consider six components of the public policy-making process:

n agenda setting or agenda building

n formulation

n adoption

n implementation

n evaluation

n termination

Before a policy can be created, a problem that exists must be called to the attention of government. Sometimes a problem can exist for years, but not until enough people consider it serious enough to require government action does it get onto the public agenda. For example, an interest group or the media may suddenly become incensed by the plight of the homeless, violations of free speech, or free press, or conditions in the local jail. That problem which long had been festering but unattended then will be catapulted onto the public agenda.

At other times a specific event can instantly put a problem on the agenda, for example, a flood, a fire, the collapse of bleachers or the ceiling in a public stadium or high school, or a terrorist's act of violence. At other times a problem which long has been festering but unattended will be catapulted to the fore.

Various actors can bring potential policy issues into the public arena. They do so because they perceive the need to expose a problem with the hope of altering an existing policy arrangement. The public agenda thus develops out of the publicity and/or information that emanate from four basic sources: interest groups, the mass media, public officials, and the bureaucracy.

Once a problem has been placed on the public agenda, competing proposals for solving the problem will be put forth. Organized interest groups and ad hoc citizens' groups play a vital role as proponents of particular solutions. Other proposals can come from the executive or legislative branches of government. The courts, the bureaucracy, and various interest groups also may suggest policy solutions.

The merits and demerits of competing proposals for solving the problem are then considered. They may be the subject of discussion in public meetings, in the organizations of civil society, on television or in newspapers, or in informal exchanges among families or friends. Through processes of deliberation, debate, consensus-building, and/or voting a policy is adopted. That policy often is an amalgam of several proposals. And, in some cases, the deliberative process results in a decision to reject all proposals either because none are deemed worthy solutions or because the identified problem is deemed to be a private rather than a public matter.

If and when a public policy is adopted, it must be implemented or carried out. Implementation is usually done by institutions other than those who formulated the policy. Implementation usually requires the formulation of rules, regulations, or guidelines which contain more specific details than the statement of the policy.

When a policy is adopted and implemented it must be evaluated to determine how well the policy is working. There can be formal and informal evaluations made by people both inside and outside government. Typically evaluators use cost-benefit analysis to make their determinations.

If a policy is found wanting it can be terminated. Policies are difficult to officially terminate, however. Usually policies just become obsolete or support for them erodes because the interest of the citizens' groups or elected officials who initially put them on the public agenda fades away. In the meantime, new problems are emerging on the public agenda and attention is focused on them. Thus the cycle continues. As Lord Salisbury once said "There is no such thing as a fixed policy, because policies, like all organic entities are always in the making."

Project Citizen invites students to learn the public policy process by becoming a part of it. Students "do" public policy-making rather than just read or hear about it. And the doing is the start of what can become a life-long disposition towards engaged and empowered citizenship.

Research attests the effectiveness of Project Citizen. Let us turn now to the fourth and final reason for using Project Citizen. Research attests to its effectiveness and worth. The most extensive evaluation of Project Citizen to date was conducted by the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin between September 1997 and May 1998. Additional research has been conducted in the Czech Republic where Project Citizen is used nation-wide, in Bosnia, in Mexico, and elsewhere. Research findings in other nations generally confirm those of the University of Texas.

The Texas research team was led by Professor Kenneth Tolo. It consisted of 15 graduate students with substantial professional experience in public, private, and nonprofit organizations. Data was gathered from students, teachers, parents, civic leaders, state legislators, and others in the 45 states now using Project Citizen. In addition to written surveys and telephone interviews in all 45 states, the researchers made site visits to nine states. There they observed classes, simulated hearings, and teacher-training sessions. They also convened focus groups and did extensive face-to-face interviewing.

The research findings are book length so I will just give you a few of the more significant findings. In staccato fashion they are:

1. Project Citizen was most often used in social studies (history, civics, geography, government) classes, but it also was used in many other classes as well ranging from English/language arts and science to foreign languages and mathematics.

2. Project Citizen has been used successfully in classes of varying academic ability. It is very popular with gifted and talented groups, but it also is popular and effective with remedial students.

3. "Outgoing, flexible, innovative teachers who `trust their kids', who are comfortable with active learning, and who enjoy their job, are most likely to use Project Citizen effectively.

4. Ninety-eight percent of teachers surveyed say Project Citizen is a good way to teach civic education, and 83% report they will use it again. They will use the program again because it

n deepens knowledge and understanding of government

n involves/excites students

n develops higher-order thinking skills

n has concrete results—students, parents, civic leaders can see/hear what the students have done

n integrates disciplines

n develops skills all citizens need

n fosters teamwork and encourages cooperation

5. Ninety percent of students surveyed believe Project Citizen helped them learn how to solve problems; they also learned what public policies are and how they are made.

6. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, 78% of students surveyed "strongly agree" or "agree" with the statement that "I have discovered that I can have an impact on my community" as a result of what I've learned from Project Citizen.


Study after study and opinion poll after opinion poll have documented the current depth and breadth of civic disengagement throughout the world. The withdrawal of citizens from political and civic life does not bode well for the health and vitality of democracy. Democracy is incompatible with apathy and with widespread ignorance of politics and government. In a democracy citizens do have a good deal of power over collective decisions affecting their lives, but they most know how to utilize that power. Citizens must understand what is at stake in politics, what their alternatives are, what their own positions are, why they hold them, and how to successfully advocate them. At the same time citizens need to understand that democratic politics is neither the unbridled exercise of individual rights nor the unrestrained pursuit of personal interests. Limits are inherent in collective political life. Citizens have responsibilities as well as rights, and if democracy is to succeed, citizens must willingly fulfill those responsibilities.

Project Citizen affords young people an opportunity to learn about their rights and their responsibilities by exploring the political and civic world in which they actually live—their neighborhood, school, community, state, and the associations that make up civil society. They are able to see for themselves how issues are put on the public agenda, how public policies are debated, formulated, implemented, and evaluated. They are engaged in research, deliberation, and advocacy. They learn how to work with their fellow citizens and they come to understand that in a democracy solving problems means that citizens must be willing to compromise, to avoid seeing things totally in black and white, and to avoid putting things in the context of a "zero-sum game." If democracy means anything, democracy means sharing—the sharing of power, intelligence, resources, and responsibilities.

Project Citizen requires students to become engaged in their own communities. Through the personal contacts they make, students learn what people in government and civic life do, how institutions and agencies work. And they begin to make more informed judgments about what is right and what needs to be improved. Through this immersion in civic life, students acquire the knowledge, develop the skills, and summon the will to behave as citizens in the best democratic tradition.

The challenges to democracy today are many, but not new. The great Russian novelist Fedor Dostoevsky wrote about them in his masterpiece The Brothers Karamazov. You may remember the dialogue between Jesus Christ and the Grand Inquisitor. It speaks to the persisting problem of human values and modern democracy. The Grand Inquisitor taunts Christ with the claim that God's greatest gift to mankind—freedom—is a burden on most humans and that, deep down, what the great majority of people really want is possessions and personal security rather than freedom.

Freedom does make demands on human beings. Freedom is not free; it exacts a price of those who would be free. That price entails acquiring the knowledge, developing the skills, and making the commitments that are essential to an open society based on democratic values and principle.

The Grand Inquisitor was wrong. In the long run, material possessions and personal security are not enough to satisfy the deepest yearnings of human beings. Only freedom allows us to maximize our potential and to enlarge our concern for the well-being of others. We are not born knowing how to be free, however. Freedom must be taught and learned. The most important attribute of Project Citizen, therefore is that it helps young people learn how to use, to enjoy, and to cherish freedom—God's greatest gift to humankind.

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