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New Directions: Service and the Bush Administration’s Civic Agenda

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From his first major speech as a presidential candidate, in Indianapolis in July 1999, George W. Bush has made expanding civic engagement and increasing the strength and effectiveness of civic institutions a central aim. He articulated his vision for an active and engaged citizenry in his inaugural address, in which he urged Americans to be “citizens, not spectators; citizens, not subjects; responsible citizens, building communities of service and a nation of character.”

The events of September 11 added energy and urgency to this goal, as an active citizenry became an important bulwark against terrorist threats. These policy aims took their most concrete form in the 2002 State of the Union address, when President Bush called on all Americans to devote at least two years—or 4,000 hours—over their lifetimes in service to their communities, nation, and world. The president announced he had created the USA Freedom Corps to promote and coordinate government and private-sector efforts to give Americans more meaningful service opportunities to answer that call. As part of the USAFreedom Corps he also formed Citizen Corps to help citizens play appropriate roles in meeting the nation’s emerging homeland defense needs and called for expanding the Peace Corps, Senior Corps, and AmeriCorps.

The president’s embrace of national service programs, while springing directly from his philosophy of compassionate conservatism, no doubt surprised many people who had come to associate such efforts with Democratic presidents. Few people dispute that the voluntary efforts of citizens can make neighborhoods safer, the environment cleaner, children more prepared to face life’s challenges, seniors healthier, and communities better able to deal with emergencies. But the challenge for many has been to define the role government ought to play in this arena. Can federally funded service be administered in a way that protects the independence of the civic sector and ensures that citizens, rather than government, take responsibility for the health and safety of their neighborhoods and their nation?

Government and the Voluntary Sector

A long tradition in American politics warns against allowing government to encroach on the private sector. No less a student of American democracy than Alexis de Tocqueville warned that the growth of government could weaken the American tradition of joining civic groups. In the 1950s, sociologist Robert Nisbet, among others, lamented the decline of community, blaming it on the destructive effects of an expanding welfare state. Recently, a host of figures, especially Robert Putnam in his book Bowling Alone, have warned that Americans are reaching dangerous levels of civic disengagement, one measure of which is declining interest in volunteering and civic associations.

Not until 1965, however, did many thinkers who were concerned about government encroachment on the voluntary sector begin to develop a positive agenda for the diffuse web of nonprofit groups, associations, schools, and community organizations that came to be known as the “independent sector.” Chief among them was Richard Cornuelle, a businessman and political activist, who in his 1965 book, Reclaiming the American Dream, challenged the right to demonstrate how private, nonprofit organizations could successfully tackle tasks such as making a college education affordable to the lower and middle classes, reducing poverty and welfare dependency, and improving housing for the needy. Could developing an agenda for the independent sector, he asked, offer a way to address pressing public needs without expanding government?

A decade later, two scholars from the American Enterprise Institute, Peter Berger and Richard John Neuhaus, set out such an agenda. They urged government to make better use of “;mediating structures”—neighborhood, family, church, and voluntary associations—to deal with social problems. In their widely discussed “To Empower People,” they set forth two propositions: first, that government policy should stop harming these mediating structures and, second, that it should use them whenever possible to realize social purposes.

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During Governor Bush’s campaign for the presidency, his support for mediating structures and the people they mobilize—now termed “armies of compassion”—figured prominently. He proposed to clear away legal and bureaucratic obstacles, thereby allowing the federal government to provide support to grassroots groups, exactly the kind of mediating institutions that Berger and Neuhaus had in mind.

In Bush’s vision, federal service programs fill a special niche—they create more opportunities for people to volunteer. Through AmeriCorps, for example, the intensive commitment members make—up to 40 hours a week for one or two years—would be directed to helping organizations locate, train, and mobilize the armies of compassion.

September 11 and Service

In the fall of 2001, the administration was hoping to advance its strategy for citizen engagement through a “Communities of Character” initiative. The president was planning to spotlight places across the nation where people voluntarily came together to solve problems, putting others’ interests above their own. The attacks on September 11 made that effort superfluous. Communities across the United States sent medical and relief teams to New York and Washington, while millions of ordinary citizens donated blood and money. “What can I do to help?” became an almost universal refrain, making citizenship and service more important than ever. In response, the president announced plans to increase the role of AmeriCorps members and Senior Corps volunteers in public safety, public health, and disaster relief and to focus their efforts more sharply on homeland security.

In his 2002 State of the Union message, the two halves of the Bush administration’s civic agenda came together. Toward the end of an address devoted chiefly to the war against terrorism, homeland security, and the economy, the president called on all Americans to devote at least two years during their lifetimes to serving their neighbors and their nation. Acts of goodness and compassion in one’s community, he argued, would be an appropriate way of responding to the “evils” of September 11. And he proposed changes in national service programs to enable more Americans to serve both through these programs and through the grassroots organizations they would support.

These proposals represent a new direction in national and community service. To begin with, they put to rest the idea—which has gained currency in the aftermath of September 11—that national and community service should be made mandatory. Whether in AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps, or in private organizations, service, the president said, was to continue to be a voluntary, individual, moral commitment.

The proposed reforms also make clear that service through the federal government is to strengthen, not replace, traditional volunteering. The president anticipated that most Americans would answer his “call to service” by continuing to devote a few hours a week to work with a local church, school, hospital, or nonprofit. But federal programs like AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps would be available for those who wanted an intensive volunteer experience at home or abroad. The president also directed various cabinet departments to explore ways to encourage more Americans to volunteer and to remove any barriers to participation.

A New Role for Federal Service

In the administration’s vision of national service, participants take on tasks different from those performed by ordinary volunteers. Volunteerism is not free, in the sense that volunteers must be recruited, organized, and set to work. To make more effective the efforts of millions of individual volunteers, who come to the table with all types of skills, abilities, and experiences, someone has to organize volunteer opportunities so that they meet concrete and clearly defined human needs. The organizations mobilizing the “armies of compassion” need corporals and sergeants—precisely the role that this administration sees for national service participants. Whether in education, the environment, public health, elder care, or strengthening homeland security, their long-term commitment is of special value to charities and public agencies, which can count on them to show up each day, receive training, and take on long-range tasks and responsibilities that ordinary volunteers cannot-something known in the nonprofit world as “capacity building.” That difference also justifies paying some of them a small stipend for living expenses, as well as a GI bill-type award for education.

Habitat for Humanity already follows this approach. It uses AmeriCorps members and Senior Corps volunteers to recruit, manage, and organize the traditional volunteers on which it relies to build homes for low-income people. Habitat founder Millard Fuller—once skeptical of AmeriCorps, but now an enthusiastic supporter—reports that volunteer leveraging by AmeriCorps members serving with Habitat has helped the group build 2,000 extra homes and engage more than 250,000 new volunteers. AmeriCorps members working with Habitat do not replace the volunteers who are building the houses; instead, they help recruit them from college campuses and elsewhere. They also ready the building sites so that when the hammer-swinging volunteers show up, they can get right to work and have a more productive experience. Along with helping Habitat build more houses, AmeriCorps participants thus engage more Americans in civic activities.

Another version of this model is to use AmeriCorps members to build the administrative and technological capacities of grassroots groups. For example, since it was created in 1965, members of Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), who now make up about 15 percent of AmeriCorps members, have focused their efforts on mobilizing and managing teams of volunteer counselors, developing or expanding programs, and implementing administrative and accounting systems. Those efforts equip nonprofits—or voluntary public health or disaster relief groups—to do more of the work they already do. This fall, for example, VISTA will fund 10 members to work with Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE) at strategic points around the country, helping to develop SIFE teams that will teach financial literacy, from balancing checkbooks to investment strategies, to underprivileged populations in inner cities. The VISTA members won’t do the actual teaching; rather, they will expand the program by training and developing new teams.

Implementing these strategies requires changing not only how federal service programs have been run, but also the laws establishing them. While VISTA members, for example, are allowed to do a wide range of capacity-building activities, other AmeriCorps participants, governed by rules enacted in the 1990s, are now required by law to provide services (such as tutoring or health care) directly to clients. Changes to allow national service participants to perform a wider range of services were incorporated in a set of principles for a Citizen Service Act, which the Bush administration unveiled last spring. The bill, which includes reforms to mobilize more volunteers who receive nothing from government, to make organizations receiving support more effective and accountable, and to remove barriers to participation in service programs, is now before Congress.

Finally, the president will use his new White House council, the USA Freedom Corps, to promote the health of the voluntary sector in general. The council will not only coordinate the efforts of all volunteer and service programs in the federal tent, but also concern itself with federal policies that affect the well-being of civil society. For example, it can work across federal agencies to improve the effectiveness of school tutoring programs that help students in need. And it can encourage organizations—businesses and nonprofits alike—to respond to the president’s call to service by making institutional changes, such as giving employees paid time off for service, enlisting consumers in volunteer service activities, and increasing the capacity of service providers to use volunteers. For the first time, at the highest levels of our government, a presidential council will develop an agenda of “citizenship, service, and responsibility.

The USA Freedom Corps will link citizens with service opportunities in their communities. In July, the president unveiled a redesigned website (www.
usafreedomcorps.gov) that features the USA Freedom Corps Volunteer Network, the largest clearinghouse of volunteer opportunities ever created. Thanks to an unprecedented collaboration among many government agencies, for-profit companies, nonprofit organizations, and private foundations, Americans can now find volunteer opportunities anywhere in the country (and even abroad) with just a few clicks of the mouse. The effort represents the power of government to rally diverse (and sometimes competitive) groups to a higher and shared purpose-and offers a glimpse of the public-private partnerships that are possible when government promotes service.

Since the president’s call to service, interest in volunteer and national service is up. Key indicators include the increase in the numbers of citizens being matched with local service opportunities, as well as traffic at web sites for the USA Freedom Corps and the recruitment websites of Senior Corps and AmeriCorps, where applications have more than doubled. The Peace Corps also reports steady increases in applications. Nonprofit organizations, businesses, schools, faith-based groups, and other institutions are stepping forward to answer the call to service with new commitments and, in many cases, institutional changes that promise to foster a culture of service for years to come.

Service and Cultural Renewal

The Bush administration’s civic agenda, together with its reform of national service, represents an unprecedented, cross-sector push to reconnect Americans to their communities and their country—and a new direction in how government views its role in strengthening the voluntary sector. Instead of bemoaning the decline of American mediating institutions, the administration seeks public actions to reinvigorate them. In an era of a high-tech, low-manpower military, it also looks for ways to involve as many Americans as possible in serving their country during a time of war and to encourage institutional changes at every level to ensure that volunteer service remains strong in times of peace. It aims to provide avenues for Americans, especially young adults and senior citizens able to offer sustained volunteer service, to dedicate themselves to reaching out and ministering to the needy and suffering. The president’s service agenda clearly reflects the belief that citizens who are closest to the needs of people in local communities are best positioned to bring hope and help to those most needing it and that a renewed effort is needed to mobilize more Americans into volunteer service.

In identifying national and community service as a force for institutional and cultural renewal, the Bush administration has begun to make it an idea that Americans of all political stripes can embrace.

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