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In his acceptance speech, President Barack Obama included this applause line: “The role of citizens in our democracy does not end with your vote. America’s never been about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us together through the hard and frustrating, but necessary work of self-government. That’s the principle we were founded on.”
With that, the President has created an opportunity for the nation to rethink the “public” in “public policy.” Once in office, Presidents—and, indeed, other officeholders at virtually all levels of government—seem strikingly less interested in what their constituents have to say than they do during their campaigns. The meetings and two-way conversations they have with the public on the campaign trail become less frequent or disappear; the social media might continue, but the conversation typically becomes one-way.
This need not be so. The National League of Cities reports that the vast majority of local elected officials regularly use public engagement processes like community forums and workshops, neighborhood councils, and online discussions. They see important benefits such as “developing a stronger sense of community, building trust between the public and city hall and finding better solutions to local problems.” Similarly, the American Planning Association found that 75% of Americans believe engaging citizens through local planning is essential to economic recovery and job creation. After all, if a city responds to the needs and market demands from its citizens, that city would more likely see development occur that adds to the tax base, entices new residents, and creates jobs in the process.
Elected officials ignore their publics at their own peril. Sometimes, the harm done by ignoring the input of the public can seem relatively benign. But the exclusion of the public from participating in their democracy can prove to be far costlier. Some sue to be heard and bleed the public’s coffers in legal fees. Others mount recall elections, which also prove costly, tend to divide the community, and drive politics into gridlock.
But in other cases, the public seizes the opportunity to participate directly, and the results are profound. A visually impaired man is alerted to a mobile booth on a college campus where he can offer input on his community’s future, and with the help of a staff person, spends a half hour completing a very visual land use exercise. His and other input evolves into a preferred community growth scenario for the next 30 years. A woman who buried her husband decades earlier works for several months with a facilitated citizen task force to upgrade the condition of local cemeteries and influences key leaders to rethink their approach. Thousands participate, online and in person, in conversations about how to spend the public’s money on bonds for capital improvement projects, using “play money” to decide in small groups what kinds of projects deserve funding. Elected officials then place bond referenda on a ballot that almost perfectly reflect the public’s input.
The President’s speech suggests that he longs for recreating these kinds of moments on a national scale, like others have done around the world. In its core values, the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) argues that governments should seek out and facilitate the public’s involvement in policymaking; provide the public with the background information they need to participate; and demonstrate to the public how their input affected an outcome (or why it didn’t). The White House could easily embrace these and other principles in unveiling a policy and a set of tools to engage the public in dialogue—complementing their earlier work on tools like WeThePeople.org.
After all, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits Congress from making any law that abridges or impedes the right of the people “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” It therefore behooves officeholders to facilitate that process—enabling anyone to offer input, regardless of whether they are courageous enough to deliver a speech at a hearing scheduled just before a vote. Public hearings aren’t enough; elected officials need input from others who hold a deep stake in the outcome of a decision but prefer to talk in smaller groups, at lower volumes, with fewer diatribes and more offers of compromise.
Undoubtedly, it would take investments in time, money, and other resources to enable people around the country to discuss issues, review alternative approaches, and offer direct input to decision-makers. But practitioners, training, and tools abound—from text-message based polling and moderated online discussions to game-based planning processes and dialogue facilitation teams.
Perhaps Americans divided on their candidates and other social issues could then unite around this common vision: to enable all Americans affected by a decision to affect that decision.
Author: Larry Schooler is President of the International Association for Public Participation (United States affiliate) and a community engagement consultant based in Austin.