MILLEDGEVILLE — Civic health reflects the degree to which citizens participate in their communities, from local and state governance to interactions with friends and family.
Georgians’ rank poor nationally based on the first ever Georgia Civic Health Index.
The index created by the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at UGA, Georgia Family Connection Partnership, GeorgiaForward and the National Conference on Citizenship used social connectedness, community involvement, political action and participation and confidence in institutions as evaluators.
For example, the study shows Georgians rank near the bottom in volunteering (34th), charitable giving (40th), attending public meetings (36th), voter turnout (38th) and contacting elected officials (34th).
Local officials see Milledgeville and Baldwin County a little different.
Baldwin County Commissioner Sammy Hall, District 3, said he receives at least two calls a week not to mention numerous street face-to-face questions.
Hall said folks usually turn out to meetings for hot button issues.
“It’s always been very low participation unless it’s something that directly affected the people and got their attention. Then the room will fill up,” Hall said. “That’s the way it’s been for years.”
He added the younger generation might not attend official meetings due to time constraints and families.
Milledgeville Mayor Richard Bentley looks at lower City Council meeting attendance positively.
“It tells me that they have confidence in what we are doing,” Bentley said.
The Milledgeville mayor said he enjoys frequent interaction with residents. In his opinion, elected officials do better when the public stays informed.
“We do a better job when people are engaged,” Bentley said. “We have our own opinions and try to do the best that we can to serve the community, but we want to know what they think too.”
On the positive side, the state is average on voting in local elections, talking to neighbors and group membership based on the new study.
The mayor said Milledgeville’s civic and community outreach organizations provide a great service.
“I would put Milledgeville and Baldwin County up against any community as far as that type of social engagement. I’m proud to live in a community that cares. If there is a need, there is an organization there to meet it,” Bentley said.
According to the report, Georgia’s civic indicator strengths lie in expressing community or political opinions online (6th) and talking about politics (17th).
Digital Bridges director Tommy Cook said the web provides an easily accessible forum. Older folks want to join the conversation also.
“The widespread access to media and technology allows people to be their own publisher in a sense and allows them to get that opinion out there with very little barriers,” Cook said. “I’ve seen an increase in older people coming here that want to learn how to use a computer for those purposes.”
The study said Georgia has a strong foundation of local social networks from which to build overall civic health. We still have a long climb based on the current numbers.
“While there are strengths in Georgia’s civic health, this report clearly sets out that we have work to do to improve civic engagement. Specifically, there are gaps in levels of civic engagement between those with higher income and educational attainment and those with less; between older residents and younger residents; and, on a few measures, between white and non-white residents and among rural, suburban, and urban residents,” the report states.
Adults born after 1981 considered Millennials tend to lag behind older generations in participation, according to the civic study.
Future Georgia Civic Health Index results could look brighter with a more in tune younger constituency. Research shows community civic health links to higher economic resilience as well as lower unemployment.
“This generation represents the future of our state, and we must work to ensure they are actively involved in shaping the civic health of our communities,” the report’s conclusion said.
Hall said it’s paramount those of voting age insert themselves into democracy. Bentley encourages students to vote, but admits apathy is a nationwide problem.
Both officials discussed the relevance of local politics.
“Future and current taxpayers need to get involved because it’s their community. The rest of us aren’t going to be there forever,” the county commissioner said.
The mayor said local elections personally relate to us all.
“The only thing you can do is educate people that the local elections are really more important than the rest because they affect you directly everyday,” Bentley said.
Georgia’s poor voter turnout ranking bugged the commissioner.
“It bothers me a lot that people won’t go and vote. They don’t have to be at the county commission meeting every time the door opens, but they need to be in that ballot box. That’s how they change things,” he said.
The study said the online medium is a useful tool to inform multiple populations about civic engagement opportunities.
Cook said the political process could make better use of this Internet platform.
“If we could open that channel up for the constituency to communicate with our representatives and legislators, we could probably make the system a lot better by finding a way to incorporate it into the decision-making process,” he said.
The Civic Health Index is available on www.georgiaforward.org.