Civic Education and Why it’s Important

In addition to moonlighting as a public administration student at night, I am also what could be considered a front line state employee. I often find myself seeing several sides of an issue whenever something procedural is changed; and given the current economic climate for the states, something changes at least every week.

In between commiserating with coworkers when a process is adjusted for the 4th time in as many weeks, part of that also involves involuntarily reverting to a student and understanding why certain decisions are made, particularly as a government employee and as a student who has studied state and local government throughout the duration of an MPA program.  I’m sure everyone remembers junior high school where teachers explained the three branches of government, the difference between the Senate and the House of Representatives and other basic parts of the American system. But that seems to be where most education ends for those of us not studying government or politics.

In my line of work, clients file employment discrimination charges against current or former employers. Part of the filing process is explaining to clients that, 98% of the time, they are dual-filing with the state and with the “Federal” EEOC . If there is any confusion, I explain that they are filing with the state agency and the federal agency at the same time, in one location. I explain this process only so the following example makes more sense. One client in particular was adamant that the “national” level was above the “federal” level. Practitioners and students can almost always assume that in the United States, the terms federal government and national government are synonymous.

This lack of education about more than the basic parts of government could also explain the general, and some could argue much deserved, antipathy towards Congress. I often look across the border at Canada or to the U.K. or other European nations pass legislation much more quickly than in the U.S. But is inherently different in the American federal system where, even if one party controls both Houses of Congress and the White House, a minority party can still have the power to put the brakes on legislation. It’s this frustration that many Americans feel about why health care reform still has not come to fruition and why many practitioners struggle with patience when explaining the basic layers of government.

As practitioners, we must keep being reminded that the people we serve are not experts in the purpose, functions, or limits of government as we are.

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