Time to confront our citizenship deficit

A number of years ago, I was the campaign director of a small non-government organisation that used to run ‘activist training’ workshops in Sydney. We looked at different ways to mount campaigns, and the topics covered included tips on writing media releases, lobbying politicians, and sourcing quality research.

One of the most important dimensions of the workshops, however, was to encourage participants to believe that they could achieve change. While generally well-received, at one point an attendee working within the gay community politely pulled me aside and said, ‘No offence, but while it maybe ok for a white, middle-class, university-educated, NGO worker from the eastern suburbs to believe this, why would anyone care about a fag from the western suburbs?’

Unfortunately this attitude dominates a large part of our community. While some believe that they can change the political environment, others cannot imagine that they have such influence. This makes the relationship between citizens and civic organisations a highly uneven one. If we wish to promote greater community engagement, we must therefore take into account the nature and causes of this disparity. Unfortunately much of the existing research on citizenship has taken an overly homogenous view, detracting from its potential value as a basis for citizen engagement activities.

The complex citizen

The Centre for Cultural Research is currently conducting a research project on the complex, heterogeneous and constantly changing nature of citizenship. [1] The initial findings of this research are outlined below.

Citizenship often reflects of the environment in which citizens find themselves. Within Sydney, for example, we have a postcard harbour surrounded by places of controversy and poverty. Residents of very different backgrounds live in close proximity – often harmoniously, and sometimes less so. According to recent research by Griffith University’s Urban Research Program, the city is becoming increasingly polarised, with the wealthiest sections enjoying high levels of access to amenities, while other sections are experiencing increasing deprivation. The changing physical, demographic and relational structure of the city has meant that there has also been a change in the way that different groups interact with, and perceive, civic bodies.

These disparities not only present challenges for policy makers generally, they also have important implications for citizens’ relationships with each other, as well as with the civic institutions that are meant to represent them. This is particularly the case if civic institutions are seen to either neglect or favour certain groups, and in part, this has given rise to what can be described as a ‘citizenship surplus’ as well as a ‘citizenship deficit’.

A citizenship deficit emerges when groups sense or believe that they do not have access to political avenues to be heard, represented and demand change. In this context people feel unable to be engaged or are frustrated in their attempts to represent themselves or demand action from government and services on their behalf. This leads to disconnection from political processes.

Contrary to common perception, citizenship deficits don’t only affect the disadvantaged. As the traditional responsibilities and activities of government are outsourced and privatised, there is a parallel privatisation of decision making which removes opportunities for meaningful civic engagement from rich and poor citizens alike.

The idea of a citizenship deficit is a fairly familiar one. Less often considered is the possibility that citizenship can be in ‘surplus’ – in contexts in which citizens’ capacity and opportunity to engage exceeds their willingness to do so.

Because citizenship – and citizenship deficits – are fluid and heterogeneous phenomena, they can be categorised in a number of different ways. One possible categorisation is portrayed in in the diagram below.

1. Marginalisation and citizenship deficits

The first category of citizenship deficit is brought on by a sense of marginalisation. This is driven by a belief that interaction with civic institutions is pointless as opinions and demands will be ignored, which means that there is no connection between the population and the civic institutions surrounding them.People feel that any effort to be involved will not be rewarded with results, and consequently a sense of disengagement and disempowerment prevails.

2. Privatisation and citizenship deficits

This citizenship deficit applies to much wealthier populations and results from a lack of access to civic institutions because of privatisation and neglect by government authorities. This in turn leads to the privatisation of decision-making and withdrawal from the public arena as well as from democratic processes. Consequently, the residents in the pockets of wealth may find their relationships with civic institutions more like that of consumers than citizens.

This group has often been described as the ‘aspirationals’ and are most often found in the growth corridors of Sydney. There is no reason to believe that the disengagement of this group is result of choice – instead it may be driven by the failure of government authorities to service their needs.

3. Citizenship surplus – empowered not engaged

In the third category citizenship is in ‘surplus’ even if there is limited or no political engagement. This group appears to have quite a lot in common with the ‘aspirationals’ but may come from areas that are highly serviced by civic institutions: the choice not to engage is therefore voluntary. There is a strong push for self sufficiency – a belief that their social capital, wealth and status means that they do not not require the services of civic institutions (including government bodies). While not antagonistic towards such institutions, the belief is that the services provided by the private sector are ultimately superior to public ones. Members of this group may overcome their disengagement if there is a threat to their quality of life (such as a proposed development) or a threat to their value system (such as a support for an apology of discomfort with the Howard government’s mandatory detention of refugee children). Their engagement is accompanied by a belief that political influence is possible and supported by the mobilisation of some impressive resources.

4. Insurgent Citizenship – empowered and engaged

The final category of citizenship identified is the insurgent citizen (see Holston 2007): that is, the citizen who is both engaged and empowered. This group may not have access to a great deal of financial resources, but has high social capital and both a willingness and ability to make time to be engaged in the political process. Consequently, they feel empowered through their social background and are engaged with civic institutions and political processes.

This group can have either progressive or conservative characteristics. On the one hand we see ‘activists’ promoting social justice issues (including students, academics, unionists and so on), and on the other hand we see the emergence of groups that take an anti-immigration stance (such as ‘anti-immigration’ political parties).

These different categories represent broad groupings which include include a great deal of internal variation. Further, the composition of these groups are not static as populations and individuals may move quickly between the groups as situations and experiences change.

There is little doubt there is a relationship between attitudes to citizenship and the health of a democracy. In Australia, democracy is robust in some ways, but many feel disempowered or disengaged and some feel both. Often civic institutions seem remote and disinterested which has in part driven a decline in the public’s interest in political parties (Jaensch et al 2004). To stop this, we must confront and challenge our citizenship deficit.

[1] The research project is also supported by
Oxfam Australia’s Young Engagement Program. I would also like to acknowledge the
efforts of Kylie McKenna in obtaining much of this research data.


Gill, J. and Howard, S. (2001). “It’s like We’re a Normal Way and Everyone Else is Different”: Australian children’s constructions of citizenship and national identity.

Educational Studies, 27(1), 87-103. Holston, J. (2007) Insurgent Citizenship: Disjunctions of Democracy and Modernity in Brazil, Cloth., California.

Jaensch, D., Brent, P. and Bowden, B. (2004) Australian Political Parties in the Spotlight, Democratic Audit of Australia, Science Program Social Sciences, National University, Report No. 4.

Pusey, M. (2003) The experience of middle Australia: the dark side of economic reform, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.