Civics at Work: Constitution Day Training for Federal Employees

In 2004, Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV) attached a provision to an omnibus spending package officially designating every September 17 as “Constitution Day and Citizenship Day” in celebration of the day the U.S. Constitution was signed in 1787. Despite the other challenges of the day, Senator Byrd asserted that “our greatest enemy is not armed with guns . . . our greatest enemy is our own ignorance and our own inattention to the Constitution.” Nearly two decades later, that sentiment seems tragically prescient.

To face today’s challenges, the federal government must recognize the national security imperative of reinvigorating civic education, and that starts with reinvigorating its own civics programs this Constitution Day.

Q1: Why is reinvigorating civic education a national security imperative?

A1: Civic education has atrophied in much of the country, providing fertile ground for bad actors, foreign and domestic, to weaken U.S. democracy by deepening divisions and promoting a narrative that democracy and its institutions are irrevocably broken. The consequences are reflected by recent events and confirmed in numerous survey results that show declining levels of trust in institutions and a fundamental lack of understanding of basic civics principles.

To sustain a government “of, by, and for the people,” citizens must be informed and engaged. That requires civic education to remind each individual of the shared values and principles that serve as the foundation of U.S. democracy and of the essential role—civic responsibility—they have in preserving that democracy, holding institutions accountable, and being effective agents of the change they want to see. The United States faces tremendous challenges, from Covid-19 to cybersecurity, domestic terrorism, disinformation, and competition from adversaries that threatens its leadership in the world and its national interests. The nation is capable of meeting these challenges but only if it can tap the power of its people. To do so, the United States must move from existential division to cohesive mobilization by strengthening the informed and engaged citizenry upon which democracy depends. This is a national security imperative.

Q2: What was the Byrd amendment and what did it seek to accomplish?

A2: Senator Byrd’s Constitution Day legislation was broadly intended to encourage Americans to learn about the importance of the Constitution and their rights and responsibilities as citizens in this country. Though Congress had already established Constitution Week decades earlier, Byrd’s legislation elevated and formalized processes for expanding civics dialogues across the country by, among other things, requiring that the head of each federal agency or department “provide educational and training materials concerning the United States Constitution” to their workforce every September 17. It imposed a similar requirement on schools that receive federal funding.

Senator Byrd introduced this legislation by outlining how the Constitution divides certain war powers between the executive and legislative branches of government. He concluded by underscoring that even though the president serves as the commander in chief and Congress as “the paymaster, the armorer, and the rulemaking body for the military,” it is the American people that hold power over the U.S. government.

Q3: Why is it important that federal employees are equipped with civics skills?

A3: Civic education infrastructure is usually focused at the K-12 level. However, while it is an imperative that younger Americans are equipped with civics skills so they can grow up to be responsible citizens, it is equally important that civics lessons continue into adulthood. This is especially important considering that many of today’s young adults graduated from high school at a time when civics instruction was in decline. Reinvigorating K-12 is a long-term investment. Adding efforts to strengthen civic literacy and engagement among adults can have the immediate impact that the urgency of the threat demands.

It is particularly important to ensure that the U.S. federal workforce understands how the Constitution informs the work that they do every day on behalf of the American people. Concepts like the social contract between the governed and the government, three coequal but independent branches of government, limiting the federal government to exercising specifically enumerated powers, and civilian control of the military all help federal employees understand not just the legal and ethical framework under which they operate but also the “why” behind that framework and the profound impact of taking an oath not to an individual or administration but to the Constitution. Federal employees have the added responsibility of making sure U.S. government institutions are operating with high levels of transparency and integrity and are responsive to the American people.

National security institutions in particular require significant trust between the government and the governed. The men and women who have chosen public service are the most important elements for building and sustaining that trust. The federal government needs to fully empower them to fulfill this vital role. 

Q4: What is the status of federal government Constitution Day activities today?

A4: In keeping with the Constitution Day statute (36 U.S. Code § 106), Presidents Bush, Obama, and Trump have all made proclamations on or near September 17. These proclamations include statements encouraging federal, state, and local officials to engage in civics programs to commemorate the signing of the Constitution.

The Department of Defense (DoD) has created a Constitution Day website that includes quizzes and a Constitution course for military and civilian employees, as well as the broader public. According to the DoD, each component of the military has plans to celebrate the day with civics activities. Other federal government departments and agencies also have programs and activities planned. That said, this requirement—and opportunity—for civics training has not received the prominence from senior leaders that might be expected for something that is so central to the United States’ national security.

Q5: What can the federal government do to promote more robust civic education for its employees?

A5: This Constitution Day, senior leaders in the federal government should prominently promote Constitution Day training. In particular, the federal government can encourage discussions around internal and external civics activities; internal activities are those that employees can do to strengthen their own civics awareness, and external activities are those that allow federal employees to promote and support civics in their broader communities. 

In encouraging these conversations, it is imperative that leaders in the national security community also identify ways to underscore how a foundational appreciation and understanding of the Constitution is “mission critical.” 

Leaders in the federal government can look to adapt resources produced by organizations like iCivics, the Civics Renewal Network and its partner organizations, and resources made available through federal institutions like the National Archives and U.S. federal courts to closely resonate with their employees and their agency’s mission. 

Perhaps the most important thing leaders in the federal government can do is to internalize that Constitution Day activities are a starting point, not one-off engagements that happen once a year, for reaffirming fundamental concepts and values that can empower individuals, and particularly the federal workforce, to help sustain and strengthen U.S. democracy.

Suzanne Spaulding is senior adviser for homeland security and director of the Defending Democratic Institutions project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Devi Nair is a program manager and research associate with the CSIS International Security Program.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2021 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Suzanne Spaulding
Senior Adviser, Homeland Security, International Security Program

Devi Nair

Former Associate Director and Associate Fellow, International Security Program