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Research Questions

  1. What inputs and outputs could constitute a framework for defining civic infrastructure in the United States and other democratic nations?
  2. What aspects of U.S. civic infrastructure that align with this framework are (and are not) measured?
  3. What do the measures identified say about the strength of U.S. civic infrastructure?

This report offers a framework for defining civic infrastructure and presents some measures that provide information to help monitor civic infrastructure across the United States, in individual states, in communities, and across diverse populations. The authors specifically define civic infrastructure as the places, policies, programs, and practices that undergird strong communities and foster civic engagement. The framework categorizes these places, policies, programs, and practices in terms of three inputs: (1) democratic governance, (2) civic education, and (3) civic spaces. The authors also consider how these inputs are related to a set of intertwined outputs: (1) civic literacy, (2) civic identity, and (3) civic engagement. They then identify a set of existing measures across a range of data sources that provide information about the status of these inputs and outputs in the United States.

This research has some implications for research, policy, and practice. First, more research is needed to test and confirm the definition, framework, and measures in this report. Second, federal and state policies could increase collection and availability of measures. Lastly, this research suggests considerable variation across states and communities in regard to rights and access to many aspects of civic infrastructure framework — from democratic governance, civic education, and civic spaces to the outputs of civic literacy, identity, and engagement. For that reason, this work implies the urgent need for more efforts to measure equitable access to and participation in aspects of civic infrastructure, both to monitor the health of democracy and to determine ways of improving it.

Key Findings

Measurements vary regarding aspects of U.S. civic infrastructure

  • Aspects of civic infrastructure that are covered most comprehensively are those related to political participation.
  • Measures provide some indication of international variation in democratic governance and transparency across countries, but state-by-state data and local data — critical disaggregations given the decentralized nature of the U.S. system — are often lacking.
  • Input measures that provide some information about state-by-state variation focus more on state policies, laws, and access rather than on evidence of actual access or opportunities provided as they relate to a given input (for example, civic learning opportunities available in schools).

The strength of U.S. civic infrastructure varies in several ways

  • Several measures suggest a downturn in democratic governance over the past several years, although some civic engagement measures have ticked slightly upward in the past year or so.
  • In the past several years, there has been a proliferation of state legislation to either restrict or expand Americans' civil and political rights.
  • Relatedly, state-by-state variations across many inputs and outputs in the framework provided in this report suggest unequal access to the opportunities that drive civic literacy, identity, and engagement in the United States. Specifically, the state and community in which a person lives likely determines much about that person's civic infrastructure.
  • Diversity of the population is expanding, and yet diversity is lacking in critical areas of civic infrastructure.

Recommendations

  • More research is needed to test and confirm the definition, framework, and measures in this report.
  • Federal and state policies could increase collection and availability of measures.
  • This work implies the urgent need for more efforts to measure equitable access to and participation in aspects of civic infrastructure, both to monitor the health of democracy and to determine ways of improving it.

Funding for this research was provided by gifts from RAND supporters and income from operations.

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