Citizenship: a verb!


By William Voorberg

One could say that our societies have reached a new yet familiar phase in our consideration of ‘civil responsibility’. Former president John. F. Kennedy once stated: “ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”. But after the Reagan and Thatcher administrations it seems that the thing ‘you can do for your country’ was predominantly consuming and keeping the economic wheels turning. Administrations needed to be redesigned to support this consumerism. Citizenship implied being a state customer.

Now a few decades later, some argue that we are on the edge of the collapse of the welfare state on the one hand and the development of former communist states into full grown modern societies on the other hand. Consequently, the plea leveled by JFK is becoming more urgent than ever before. And citizens are rising to that challenge! Civil initiatives seem to emerge like pigeons on San Marco square in Venice! All of a sudden the citizenry is there, mobilized and ready to confront all kinds of social challenges. A striking example is the establishment of a Tuscanian law that formalizes the participation of citizens in some decision-making procedures. A more concrete illustration is the CASO project in Portugal, where volunteers look after the oral healthiness of those who need it the most (HIV-patients, children, pregnant women etc.). A last example worth mentioning here is the Kwanda-initiative in South-Africa, where a reality TV is used to show the interactions between citizens and public officials.

These examples and a wide range of other initiatives show the limits of the conception of citizens as rational consumers, who only contribute to community purposes if it benefits them personally. Everywhere in the world, people are showing that they care about the public good and are willing to do something for the greater benefit of society. And with this we seem to be entering a new phase of citizenship: being a citizen is not just a status that an individual can be but is also becoming something that we all need to do! And as the numerous initiatives outlined above show us, people are willing and increasingly able to be active in this process.

But there is a trade-off. Research on civil initiatives has shown so far that the biggest achievement of civil engagement is in fact that citizens participate. But governments also seek citizen support to increase policy effectiveness and efficiency. To what extent these promises are being fulfilled or are mutually exclusive is unclear. Maybe even more important is to ask whether new societal groups are being excluded from participation. For instance, research on parent participation within primary education shows that only the most outgoing and expressive parents are participating and therefore deciding for other children how these services are being designed. In earlier days we had public authorities to make sure that public goods were distributed equally to all citizens. But with less interventionist governments and the activation of the citizenry, whose responsibility does it become to look after those who lack adequate opportunities or capacity for participation? This illustrates the real dilemma regarding citizen participation. On the one hand it seems like a promising way of carrying out public services more oriented towards citizen’s needs. On the other hand it raises questions about who should be accountable for equal distribution of public services, the quality of public goods and the tough choices when needed.

Citizenship is becoming more and more a verb: something one does, rather than something one is. But where does civil responsibility stop and where does governmental responsibility begin?