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Demystifying local government: non-profit boosts public engagement and fosters transparency

Global Goals & Global Society
Demystifying local government: non-profit boosts public engagement and fosters transparency

CivicLex is a nonprofit organization based in Lexington, Kentucky that was launched in 2017 with the goal of increasing public engagement with local government. The organization aims to achieve this goal by providing easy access to information about local government happenings, increasing opportunities for public participation, and covering city hall the way local news outlets would.

The founder of CivicLex, Richard Young, got the idea for the organization while working in community development and frequently finding himself at city hall. He noticed that public participation in local government in Lexington was low, and believed that this was largely due to a lack of knowledge about how to engage with the city's bureaucracy and systems.

This lack of knowledge is a broader problem in the United States, as evidenced by a 2016 survey by the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center which found that three-quarters of Americans cannot name all three branches of government. Meanwhile, civics education has been declining, with a 2018 report from Brookings' Brown Center on Education Policy finding that the civics knowledge of eighth graders has not seen the same improvements as reading and math scores in recent years.

CivicLex seeks to fill the gap left by dwindling civics education by providing an accessible information hub on its website that allows residents to easily track what's going on in local government. The organization also sends out a weekly newsletter that condenses information in one place, covering city hall like a local news outlet would.

CivicLex's focus on accessibility and design has been key to its success, according to Young. By making information simple and easy to understand, the organization has been able to engage more residents in local government. And with local news ecosystems disappearing - between 1,300 and 1,400 U.S. communities that had their own papers in 2004 now have no news coverage at all - CivicLex has been able to fill a crucial role in providing information to the public.

But CivicLex's efforts go beyond just providing information. The organization also hosts between 50 and 70 events each year, including workshops where members of local government and the public come together to learn about and engage with topics ranging from the city budget to affordable housing. CivicLex has even placed three artists across city departments to help re-envision both internal and external communications.

These efforts have been embraced by local government officials, who have worked closely with CivicLex to increase transparency and public engagement. For example, the organization helped the city run the public input process for the update of its newest comprehensive plan.

Susan Lamb, a former city council member and current city clerk for Fayette County, has seen the value of CivicLex's work firsthand. She noted that the organization was particularly helpful during the pandemic, when virtual council meetings made it difficult to engage the public. CivicLex helped increase transparency by creating a visual map of how local legislation gets made and moves through city council, which replaced outdated and difficult-to-understand jargon in the city's ordinances.

Lamb also praised CivicLex's commitment to sharing information without injecting opinions, saying that the organization does a great job of presenting facts and allowing people to form their own opinions. She believes that this is crucial in today's culture, where people need to be able to develop their own opinions based on reliable information.

Overall, CivicLex's efforts have had a notable impact in Lexington. During the election before CivicLex was launched, less than half of the city's 12 district council seats were contested. In the most recent election year, all of those seats had a competitor. This is just one example of how CivicLex is helping to increase public engagement in local government and transform the city for the better.

CivicLex's mission of increasing public engagement with local government aligns with the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), specifically Goal 16, which focuses on promoting peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, providing access to justice for all, and building effective, accountable, and inclusive institutions at all levels. By empowering residents with information and opportunities to participate in their local government, CivicLex contributes to the building of inclusive institutions and promotes transparency and accountability, which are essential components for achieving sustainable development. Furthermore, CivicLex's work demonstrates the importance of local action and citizen engagement in promoting global societal goals, such as democracy, social justice, and equitable access to resources and opportunities. By increasing civic engagement, CivicLex is helping to build a more informed, engaged, and active citizenry that can contribute to positive change in their communities and beyond.


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