There is no single answer to this question, which is deeply contested. The definition of “civic engagement” should be contested because it relates to basic questions about what constitutes a good society and a good human life.
To illustrate the debate, I post some definitions below. Some of the ways in which they differ include: the centrality of reflection or knowledge versus action; whether engagement is understood as relationships between the citizenry and formal institutions or as horizontal relationships among citizens (or both); whether the local, the national, or the global scale is emphasized; the balance of civil rights versus civic responsibilities; the importance of morality and ethics; the degree to which good citizens are thought of as deliberating, advocating, monitoring, caring, and/or working; whether civic engagement is tied to democracy or can also occur in other contexts; and whether to specify social outcomes as the objectives of civic engagement or rather to define it as a pluralistic debate about what social outcomes ought to be pursued.
Political engagement or political participation: Civic engagement that emphasizes governmental institutions and/or power. (“Voting is a touchstone of political participation in the United States.”)
“Civic engagement is the participation of private actors in the public sphere, conducted through direct and indirect interactions of civil society organizations and citizens-at-large with government, multilateral institutions and business establishments to influence decision making or pursue common goals.” –The World Bank
“Being sensitive to and understanding the world’s problems as well as addressing them through collaboration and commitment.” Duke University (via http://civic.duke.edu/)
“Civic Participation: Individual and collective actions designed to address public issues through the institutions of civil society.” “Political Awareness: Cognitive, attitudinal and affective involvement in the polity.” “Civic Engagement: The combination of Civic Awareness and Civic Participation.” — Michael Delli Carpini, Dean of the Annenberg School for Communication
“Our mission is to educate and empower people to engage in hands-on democracy in order to individually and collectively take strategic actions to identify and address the root causes of local, state, federal, and global issues of social and economic injustice and concerns.” — Occupy Los Angeles, “Civic Engagement” website
“Engagement, then, is not merely a matter of being active, of deploying the rhetorical and cognitive skills necessary to make your case and press your point. To engage with others requires that we hear what they have to say, that we make space in our interaction for them to respond fully and genuinely, and that we are fully responsive to their responses and proposals.” — Anthony Simon Laden, “Taking the engagement in civic engagement seriously” (manuscript paper)
“Active citizens seek to build, sustain, reform, and improve the communities to which they belong, which range from small voluntary associations to the world. Active citizens deliberate with peers to define public problems and then collaborate with peers to address those problems. In doing so, they honor certain virtues, such as equal respect for others and a degree of loyalty to their communities that does not preclude critical thinking and dissent. Collaboration—actual work—is just as important as deliberation. People who merely talk about public issues are ineffectual and often naïve or misinformed; we learn from acting together. By collaborating, citizens construct or build public goods: tangible goods like schools and markets, and intangible ones like traditions and norms. In doing so, they create civic relationships, which are scarce but renewable assets for civil society.” — Peter Levine (drawing from recent testimony to the National Academy of Sciences’ Committee on Science, Technology, and Law and a forthcoming book on civic renewal.)
“In American history, the citizen has been not only a voter or a rights-bearing member of the nation or a consumer of services. The citizen has also been a producer, a public-spirited agent in problem solving and common work. … Addressing the tough challenges we face today will require people to reconceive of themselves as citizens. … It will require widespread civic involvement that taps the common sense, energy, insight, and effort that comes from citizens with different talents and points of view working together, often across lines of sharp cultural, partisan, racial, and economic differences. Without active citizenship, we will continue to struggle with narrow, unfulfilling roles and ineffective institutions. With restored citizenship, we act as co-creators of history, reclaiming our birthright as democratic citizens to be full participants in shaping our common life.” — The staff and partners of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship
“A morally and civically responsible individual recognizes himself or herself as a member of a larger social fabric and therefore considers social problems to be at least partly his or her own; such an individual is willing to see the moral and civic dimensions of issues, to make and justify informed moral and civic judgments, and to take action when appropriate.” –Anne Colby and Thomas Ehrlich, introduction, to Civic Responsibility and Higher Education, edited by Thomas Ehrlich (Oryx Press, 2000)
At Portland state University (which has exceptionally strong civic programs), civic engagement is defined as “active involvement in the discourse dealing with the need to develop and utilize knowledge for the improvement of society, to use talents and offer wisdom for the greater good, and to provide opportunities for education in the spirit of a democratic society. A civically educated and engaged citizen is one who is skilled in coalition-building, collaboration, negotiation and synthesis of multiple perspectives.” — PSU, Center for Academic Excellence, statement developed through a Delphi process on campus
“In my opinion, citizenship … should encompass the values of being a good person. You should care about the rights and privileges of citizenship that have been acquired with great endeavor. So defend them. Defend and protect rights that the Constitution has bestowed on you–not just for yourself but for fellow and future citizens. Future citizens have the same desires that you had once upon a time. You should also care about society in general and the politics within it. So, care. Care about yourself, your family, your neighbors, your community, and your country. Care about the world. Be a world citizen and thus a good American citizen.” — Tahmina Watson, immigration attorney, Seattle, Washington.
via what is the definition of civic engagement?
Peter Levine’s Working Definitions
Active citizenship: Working to improve a nation or other community, independent of whether you have legal status as a member of that community. (“You were an excellent active citizen in Massachusetts while you visited here from South Africa.”)
Civil society: The array of nongovernmental organizations and networks that address public issues. Sometimes the definition introduces a qualitative dimension, so that civil society is an array of associations and networks marked by peacefulness, mutual respect, trust, and other virtues. Civil society may include for-profit enterprises as well as nonprofits. (“The government worked with civil society groups to help victims of the storm.”)
Civic education: Any process that strengthens people’s capacity for civic engagement and political participation, at any age and in any setting. (“Newspapers traditionally provided some of the best civic education in America.”)
Civic engagement: Any act intended to improve or influence a community. Often, the phrase has positive connotations, so that engagement is viewed as “civic” to the extent that it meets such criteria as responsibility, thoughtfulness, respect for evidence, and concern for other people and the environment. (“Informed voting is an example of civic engagement.”)
Civic health: The degree to which a whole community involves its people and organizations in addressing its problems. (“Minneapolis/St Paul has the best civic health of large American cities, thanks to a long tradition of strong civic organizations and responsive local government.”)
Civic institutions: The organizations and associated norms and rules that people use for civic engagement. (“Political parties and volunteer groups are two examples of civic institutions.”)
Civic life: For an individual, a life in which civic engagement has an important place. For a community, all the acts of civic engagement and associated norms and values of its members. (“A service experience prepared her for civic life.” “The civic life of Somerville, MA is vibrant.”)
Civic renewal: Efforts to increase the prevalence, equity, quality, and impact of civic engagement. (“Attending a public meeting is civic engagement, but making such meetings work better for the whole community is civic renewal.”)
Democracy: Any system for making decisions in which all the members of the community or group have roughly equal influence, whether they exercise it directly or through representatives. Voting is common in democracies but is not definitive of it. Other means–such as reaching consensus or choosing representatives by lot–can also be democratic; and voting requires other elements to be satisfactory, such as free expression and civil peace. (“An elementary school is not a democracy, but it helps prepare students for democratic participation.”)
Democratic participation: Civic engagement that involves democratic political institutions. (“Petitioning Congress is a form of democratic participation.”)
Politics: Broadly, the means and processes by which people govern themselves and others, using power and influence. One important setting of politics is government, but politics also occurs in other institutions. Politics is not necessarily contentious or zero-sum. (“The Marshall Plan was politics at its finest.”)
via defining civic engagement, democracy, civic renewal, and related terms