Within any given political tradition or ethical tradition, civics refers to education in the obligations and the rights of the citizen under that tradition. When these change, so often does the definition of civics. Related education in history, religion and media literacy is often included. In the United States, this is the explicit rationale for public education - to ensure the United States Constitution is upheld by citizens who must, at least, know what it is.
When applied to cities and their organization, it is often difficult to distinguish civics from theories of urban planning. When applied to rural areas, it is difficult to distinguish from theories of rural development. The history of civics dates back to the earliest theories of these by Plato in ancient Greece and Confucius in ancient China. These in general have led to modern distinctions between 'West' and 'East', and two very different concepts of right and justice and ethics in public life.
Of special concern are the choice of a form of government and (if this is any form of democracy) the design of an electoral system and ongoing electoral reform. This involves explicitly comparing voting systems, wealth distribution and the decentralization of political and legal power, control of legal systems and adoption of legal codes, and even political privacy - all seen as important to avoid a dystopic carceral state or a lapse into some undesirable state of totalitarianism or theocracy. Each of these concerns tends to make the process of governance different, as variations in these norms tends to produce a quite different kind of state. Civics was often simply concerned with the balance of power between say an aristocracy and monarchy - a concern echoed to this day in the struggles for power between different levels of rulers - say of the weaker nation-states to establish a binding international law that will have an effect even on the stronger ones. Thus world government is itself properly a civic problem.
On smaller scales, modern human development theory attempts to unify ethics and small-scale politics with the urban and rural economics of sustainable development. Notable theorists including Jane Jacobs and Carol Moore argue that political secession of either cities or distinct bioregions and cultures is an essential pre-requisite to applying any widely shared ethics, as the ethical views of urban and rural people, different cultures or those engaged in different types of agriculture, are irreconcilably different. This extreme advocacy of decentralization is hardly uncommon, and leads to the minimal theory of civics - anarchism.
Most civic theories are more trusting of public institutions, and can be characterized on a scale from least (mob rule) to most (the totalitarian) degree of trust placed in key public institutions. At the risk of extreme oversimplification, an historical view of civic theory in action suggests that the theories be ranked as follows:
Civics refers not to the ethical or moral or political basis by which a ruler acquires power, but only to the processes and procedures they follow in actually exercising it. Thus, some figures, e.g. Napoleon, count as totalitarian because they instituted a legal code and altered rules of succession to favor themselves and their families. Meanwhile, other figures who were arguably more cruel or arbitrary are ranked as examples of lesser public trust, because in practice they followed clearer procedures. Some unique figures, like Mao or Stalin, are hard to characterize as they followed the form (but some would say not the substance) of consultation and deliberation - although disagreeing with these figures could mean exile or death.