Local Officials Must Promote and Model Civility in Government

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The tragic shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and staffers in Tucson at the beginning of this year began an onslaught of conversation about civil rhetoric in government. But in reality, it shouldn’t have taken such an event to bring light to the importance of democratic governance.

Governance should affirm an active role for residents, community organizations, businesses, the media and others in our communities. Engaging lots of different people and institutions in learning more about each other will help the community work together to arrive at better solutions.  This is frequently the responsibility of our local elected leaders.

NLC has long been a proponent of civility and civic public discourse in communities across America.  We encourage and promote inclusive communities, democratic governance, youth civic engagement, immigrant integration, race relations and racial justice through various programs.

During this week’s Congress of Cities in Phoenix, NLC’s Board of Directors passed a resolution calling for cities, towns and leaders at all levels of government to promote and model civil public discourse.  The resolution also supports federal, state, territorial and local government policies, practices and procedures that promote civility and civil public discourse and are consistent with the First Amendment and other federal, state and local laws.

In January, NLC released a guide for local officials, Beyond Civility, From Public Engagement to Problem Solving: An Action Guide for City Leaders, as a jumping-off point for promoting democratic governance in their own communities.  The guide outlines seven principles that cities can follow to create a more open and inclusive environment, including creating opportunities for informed engagement, supporting a culture of community involvement and including everybody in the democratic process.

Additionally, as part of its democratic governance project, NLC recently published Planning for Stronger Local Democracy: A Field Guide for Local Officials. This hands-on guide helps local officials assess their community’s engagement capacities and includes suggestions for developing and enhancing practices for public participation.  It gives leaders the tools to help promote transparency and inclusivity with citizens and other community stakeholders. 

But this is just the beginning.  Local leaders must personally set an example for their constituents by governing the community in more welcoming and collaborative ways.  Civil public discourse is at the heart of American democracy.  Leaders must encourage citizens to participate in the decisions of their communities by making informed choices and using respectful communication to express opinion.