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Civic Dictionary

In this section, we offer definitions of many of the models and techniques that undergird democratic practices and civic work. On this page, you will find a growing list of terms along with short definitions. When available, by clicking on the term you will find a short, explanatory essay, links to relevant stories and case study material, suggested readings, or longer, in-depth analyses.

Because our understanding of these ideas grows and changes as we put them into practice, these definitions are not static. We appreciate your comments and suggestions on how to make these ideas more closely reflect the work that gives them substance.

Citizen Politics

Citizen politics is an approach to governance that stresses the role of ordinary people in making public decisions and solving public problems in everyday environments like neighborhoods, schools, community organizations, and places of employment. From this perspective, politics is not the sole province of elected officials nor is it limited to the sphere of formal government. The practice of citizen politics both demands and develops the capacity of ordinary people to exercise responsible, collective, public leadership.

Civil Society

Civil society refers to that sphere of voluntary associations and informal networks in which individuals and groups engage in activities of public consequence. It is distinguished from the public activities of government because it is voluntary, and from the private activities of markets because it seeks common ground and public goods. It is often described as the "third sector." For democratic societies, it provides an essential link between citizens and the state. Its fundamental appeal since its origin in the Scottish Enlightenment is its attempt to synthesize public and private good.


The term commonwealth typically has two definitions—one prescriptive and one descriptive. The prescriptive definition suggests a "self-governing community of equals concerned about the general welfare—a republican or democratic government, where citizens remained active throughout the year." The descriptive definition refers to the basic resources and public goods of a community over which citizens assume responsibility and authority. (Boyte, CommonWealth: A Return to Citizen Politics, 1989)


Communitarianism emerged in the 1980s as a response to the limits of liberal theory and practice. Its dominant themes are that individual rights need to be balanced with social responsibilities, and that autonomous selves do not exist in isolation, but are shaped by the values and culture of communities. Unless we begin to redress the balance toward the pole of community, communitarians believe, our society will continue to become normless, self-centered, and driven by special interests and power seeking.

Consensus Democracy

Consensus democracy reformulates how local democracy operates in the 21st Century. The basic principles of consensus democracy recognize the need for new institutional ways that allow all citizens to have access to direct control of the decision making process.

Consensus Organizing

Consensus organizing draws upon people's creativity and initiative to fashion innovative solutions to community problems. As developed by the Consensus Organizing Institute, the model stresses comprehensive strategies for bringing people together and providing them with the tools necessary to achieve tangible reforms. Central to the approach is the use of relationships—including relationships that defy stereotypes—as vitally important vehicles for advancing community agendas.

Deliberative Democracy

Deliberative democracy rests on the core notion of citizens themselves, and their representatives, deliberating about public problems and solutions under conditions that are conducive to reasoned reflection and refined public judgment; a mutual willingness to understand the values, perspectives, and interests of others; and the possibility of reframing interests and perspectives in light of a joint search for common interests and mutually acceptable solutions.

One-on-one Interviews

One-on-one interviews are formal ways of finding out the interests of another person, in the context of problem solving.

Public Evaluation

Public evaluation is the process of assessing how effective you have been at addressing a problem. It is a learned art that develops the civic confidence and capacity of citizens.

Service Learning

Service-learning is a method by which young people learn and develop through active participation in thoughtfully-organized service experiences: that meet actual community needs, that are coordinated in collaboration with the school and community, that are integrated into each young person's academic curriculum, that provide structured time for a young person to reflect, that let young people use academic skills and knowledge in real life situations, that enhance what is taught in school by extending learning beyond the classroom, and help foster a sense of caring for others. (Alliance for Service-Learning in Education Reform, 1993)

Social Capital

Social capital refers to those stocks of social trust, norms and networks that people can draw upon to solve common problems. Networks of civic engagement, such as neighborhood associations, sports clubs, and cooperatives, are an essential form of social capital, and the denser these networks, the more likely that members of a community will cooperate for mutual benefit.

Youth Development

Youth development is an ongoing process in which all young people are engaged and invested in seeking ways to meet their basic physical and social needs and to build the competencies and connections they need for survival and success. Youth development focuses on young people's strengths rather than their failings and emphasizes the importance of offering young people a complement of services and opportunities, including opportunities to do important work.