US democracy is in rough shape, and voters know it. According to a recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll, Americans rank preserving democracy as the second-most important issue facing the country today, behind only the evergreen concern about the economy. Translating that broad worry into action is a challenge for civic institutions everywhere. If we are to turn things around, those of us in the civic field need to build a common set of goals and measures for a healthier public life. 

Without good measurement, decisions are made based on theories rather than evidence. Evidence is necessary to help reduce the role of emotion and preconceived notions—and polarization—in decision-making. The work of civic repair includes a vast array of various practitioners, from multinational organizations to small community groups, and every one of them tracks the results of their work differently—if they track it at all.

Mapping Civic Measurement, a report by the Institute for Citizens & Scholars with funding from The College Board Foundation, draws on interviews with more than 70 researchers and practitioners and extensive resource analysis to determine what is working—and what is not—in measuring the civic knowledge, engagement, and attitudes of Americans. Collectively, are these organizations achieving the kind of civic improvement they want? Are there effective civic engagement strategies from one sector that might translate neatly into another? Civic measurements that reveal what works, what does not, and where there are gaps can guide investments toward the most significant impact. 

We cannot begin to answer those questions—let alone improve our shared work and inspire others to join—if we do not arrive at some consistent definition of terms and a set of measurements to define civic strength. One reason we do not have enough measurements of civic strength in the first place is that we lack a clear, common definition of what it means to be a good citizen today. At a moment of renewed interest in the nation’s shared public life, we have an opportunity to show where our time and resources can make the most difference.

Read the full article about civic engagement by Rajiv Vinnakota and Stefanie Sanford at Nonprofit Quarterly .