The difference between a subject and a citizen is the type of governance that binds the citizen to the polity. The citizen has a stake in the polity through participation, representation and the right of oversight.
The citizen’s right to oversee how policies are made and how resources are being used reflect non negotiable values by which a system of governance can be evaluated. We describe those values as non negotiable because without the right of oversight, all other rights are essentially imaginary. In order for citizens to participate in deciding how their communities are run, they need to have that basic right of oversight. A government’s openness to citizen oversight is known as transparency.
Leaders who disregard the importance of transparency weaken their relationship with their citizens. Such leaders exist in a precarious state of governance: in democratic systems they are voted out of office and in autocratic systems they are removed through popular uprisings, coups, and other sad events out of which communities may take years to recover. Taking a wider view, one of the key functions of civil society is the oversight of government’s use of resources and how policy is made. The tools that protect those non negotiable values, such as Town Hall meetings, public discussions of budgets, audits, investigative journalism, the right of access to records, and freedom of expression and assembly, are therefore fundamental to a resilient democracy. They are available to citizens in a democracy to safeguard their polity against the abuse of those non negotiable values of governance. Maintaining a strong democracy requires that citizens have the knowledge and capacity to use these tools, and are actively engaged in their use. That knowledge can only be acquired through education in civics. Civic engagement is the only way for citizens to ensure that their government gathers, allocates, and deploys resources appropriately and fairly. Citizen oversight and civic engagement are needed to ensure transparency and responsible government. If a government ceases to be transparent and responsible to the entire citizenry (not just those who voted for it), it loses legitimacy. The strength of a government is determined by its basis in good governance, and good governance requires civic engagement. A democracy whose citizens are not vigilant against abuses of power cannot be considered strong. Minority and majority governments that disregard the need to build coalitions always, in their obsession with asserting their legitimacy, weaken their ground floor. This is applies to local city councils or the senate of the republic, and to a local mayor’s office or the presidency of the country.
Whether at the national or community level, civic engagement and civic education are the ground floor of a strong democracy. Our position is that all community development projects should be designed as opportunities for citizens to get hands on experience in civic engagement. Individuals and their schools, community groups, clubs, and associations all need to take ownership of their community, its problems, and equitable solutions. And they must use the tools of governance to make sure that their authorities are working for the entire community.