Democracy asks a lot of citizens: it requires them to evaluate and choose among complex options, while still caring as much about the process of decision-making as its outcomes. In a world of distractions—some innocent and some malevolent—democracy asks citizens to get involved in our country’s messy yet vital processes of governance.It’s not getting any easier.
In the aftermath of the 2016 US presidential election, we have become more aware of the challenges to democracy that the information age brings. We are overwhelmed by huge and unmediated flows of information. Some of that information, moreover, is produced by actors intent on spreading disinformation and undermining the legitimacy of our democratic institutions.
Those challenges, and the approaching 2019 Canadian federal election, have generated lots of discussion about cyber security, the regulation of social media, and the state of media generally—that is, how to manage the supply of information to citizens. But this conversation ultimately concludes that the Internet cannot be fully regulated. Accordingly, Canadian governments and civil society should not overlook the most critically important resource available: the ability of voters themselves to process information.
The only reliable, evergreen safeguard to the threats that confront us now and in the future is an engaged, informed, discerning, and resilient democratic public. We need collective and comprehensive action to foster civic literacy: the individual-level tools, skills, and knowledge that make democracy work.
At the moment, civic literacy rates are unevenly distributed among Canadians. Citizens with higher socioeconomic status, who have things like more wealth and better education, tend to have higher levels of civic literacy. They have higher levels of democratic participation as well.
Additionally, there is a large and potentially growing gap between older and younger Canadians in levels of civic literacy and political attentiveness. Still other concerns have emerged recently. The decline of traditional media and the rise of social media have resulted in an increase in bad information that citizens must filter. They must ensure the information they receive and rely upon is trustworthy. They must be their own educators, editors, and fact checkers. They must play those roles in a fast-changing informational and political environment.
And it’s even harder when the information is deliberately misleading, polarizing, or designed to divide. Canadian citizens are up to the challenge, but they need support.
Civic literacy isn’t just the domain of in-school “civic education.” It used to be taught and fostered in families, places of worship, social groups, and workplaces. But for many, those sources have become fractured. Indeed, social groups, community groups, and schools can be hesitant to teach civic literacy today for fear of being criticized as being too “political” or “biased.” As such, Canada may be too reliant as a society on the expectation that in-school civic education can successfully equip Canadians to be civically literate for all aspects of life. In fact, civic literacy requires many access points to knowledge and skill building, especially outside of primary and secondary school. However, there are real obstacles to realizing this vision.
For community groups that want to offer civic literacy outside of school settings, the risks are high: they are concerned about increasing the division between their members or being accused of advocacy. Additionally, they have a very difficult time funding civic literacy programs, as funding often comes and goes with individual leaders of foundations and governments.
The program landscape for building civic literacy is also scattered. Too few initiatives—whether public or private—focus squarely on the complex challenges associated with helping citizens to become and remain civically literate. Projects often appear and then disappear due to lack of financial and institutional support and seldom get a rigorous evaluation before they wrap up. This makes it difficult to develop a strong body of evidence for what actually works.
Our civic literacy deficit is not a new problem, but there is new urgency to fix it. This is a shared project. Canada’s non-partisan civil society should take the lead on programming, but there is a critical role for governments to play—to ensure civic education happens in the first place, is sustained, reaches the communities that need it, and is founded in evidence.
- Clarifies what civic literacy is and does;
- Makes the case for why action on civic literacy is so important;
- Explains how difficult it is to measure civic literacy and how levels of civic literacy are not evenly distributed across the population;
- Presents some of the challenges to teaching civic literacy and how unevenly it is taught outside of school; and
- Discusses how to proceed, and the need for greater investment from government.
1. Innovation and funding: Civic literacy, which equips citizens to hold their government to account, is properly the work of a non-partisan civil society. But the federal government can financially support a more civically literate Canada, while keeping distance from the programming itself.
Given how little we know about what works in bettering civic literacy, the first step for the federal government would be to create an initiative and fund to identify and develop effective programs. The initiative, which could be administered by Canadian Heritage, would invite applications from not-for-profits, public institutions, schools, and perhaps media organizations. Rather than dispensing program funds for one-off projects, the federal government should use the program to:
- Experiment with community-led approaches to building civic literacy;
- Evaluate the impact and outcomes of those approaches using robust methods and evidence; and
- Scale up and promote promising practices.
Decisions about what programs get funded should involve both expertise inside and outside of government, and use clear criteria that can continue to take new evidence into account as it emerges. Programs that prove their effectiveness could subsequently receive more stable and long-term funding.
The federal government’s ongoing commitment and involvement would ensure that civic literacy programming:
- Happens in the first place;
- Is sustained;
- Is based in evidence; and
- Is reaching all the communities it should.
2. Measurement: Due to a range of both practical and theoretical concerns, there is no single set of measures for civic literacy. This is obviously a significant problem for any systematic effort to improve the overall level of civic literacy in the country, especially in the long term.
New effort should be directed toward targeted and long-term measurement, particularly as it relates to program efficacy. Developing a clear picture of how civically literate Canadians are, and looking at the effectiveness of specific programs, would require innovative measurement on multiple scales and levels.
This could include surveys designed to measure political knowledge over time and in different groups of Canadians, to research comparable measures of critical political thinking and judgement, and to study how well Canadians at large understand the ways in which they can influence government decision-making.
It would also be important to show how civic literacy affects a person’s ability to succeed as an advocate for a cause, and to feel efficacious in their political lives.
In addition to the measurement of Canadians generally, we also need to measure differences between those who have experienced programs and those who haven’t, so that we can evaluate specific efforts to improve civic literacy, and expand the ones that prove most effective.
Convening and information exchange: If civic literacy programming providers are to benefit from the work of others, governments will need to support greater connections between government, researchers and, most importantly, the organizations actively delivering civic literacy programming. Working together would advance and solidify democratic practice in Canada in several ways:
- First, it would allow for information sharing among actors working on distinct but related elements of civic literacy. That sharing would encourage the development of best practices, spur cross-pollination of ideas, and reduce duplication of effort.
- Second, civic literacy providers would be better positioned to identify areas of comparative strength and weakness in Canada’s existing support for civic literacy, and to develop strategies to address the most significant gaps in Canadian civic practice and other related issues.
- Third, providers could nurture and maintain ongoing relationships with policymakers—both with leaders responsible for articulating any necessary legislative changes, and with civil servants tasked with monitoring various democratic challenges and funding efforts to counter them. Members of such a community would be more able to provide policymakers with a definitive account of problems and potential solutions. They would also be able to take a more active role in subsequent policy design, implementation, and evaluation.
3. Designing national action: The federal government can choose from a number of approaches to accomplish those three objectives, from creating a new national agency for civic literacy (as is the case in Germany—see box on page 14 of the report), to simply scaling up the existing activities scattered across departments and agencies. There is no single path forward.
But there are advantages to creating a national home for civic literacy. Doing so would signal a strong commitment, ensure ongoing programming, and support more sophisticated research and evaluation. If designed well, a national agency for civic literacy could also guarantee non-partisanship and make collaboration possible. To repeat, civic education must be a shared responsibility of multiple levels of government.
Therefore, in designing action on civic literacy, the federal government could take inspiration from existing Canadian models to facilitate exchange, collaboration, and evaluation. For example, the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) is a not-for-profit organization established to support federal-provincial-territorial efforts to improve healthcare outcomes. Provincial and territorial governments participate in governance, creating an environment of strong collaboration across governments— which may be necessary, if in-school civic literacy is part of the agency’s mandate.
Another model could be an entity founded with a one-time endowment from the federal government or multiple levels of government, as is the case with the Institute for Research on Public Policy or the Global Centre for Pluralism. These are arms-length non-profits, not government agencies. Ideally, the design would achieve participation from government at multiple levels while the agency remains fundamentally independent from government.