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The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Lorita Copeland Daniels
December 18, 2023

Since 2020, public participation in the local government decision-making process has grown due to several contentious and politically charged debates and issues across the country. Over 70 percent of U.S. public high school principals reported in a survey that conflict in meetings was higher than it was before the pandemic. Given the heightened engagement, public administrators and officials have opportunities to embrace the community in its decision-making process. However, public access and participation have not always been set up to meet the needs of all citizens, specifically those with special considerations or from more marginalized groups (i.e., people with disabilities). As the number of politically contentious issues in the United States continues to rise, public participation in governmental affairs will remain a sought-after role for frontline communication because citizens want accountability  and an opportunity to shape and influence decisions for their representatives to make better decisions. Citizens want and shall have a more central and active role in the public decision-making process. However, the realities of seeking meaningful and engaging public participation from all groups to ensure the full inclusion of diverse groups to help solve real community problems are lost in politics.

Despite years of solidarity statements and highly publicized commitments and promises to engage diverse abilities through diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives in public and private institutions, the government may not be fully equipped to meet the numerous demands of a diverse public. For instance, in Orange County, California, deaf and hearing-impaired residents were shut out of the meetings because they did not provide close captioning in real-time. Information and advanced technology are readily available to assist the government in creating spaces for involving the public in its decision-making processes. In another example, a Texas environmental agency provided printed meeting documents only in English, and it needed more headsets for those residents who needed an interpreter for Spanish translation, creating language barriers. The government should prioritize communities, including neuro-diverse individuals, to encourage more authentic involvement by utilizing the work of scholars and community members whose work was rarely acknowledged due to a lack of clear expectations and responsibilities associated with these initiatives. The time is now to start creating a welcoming space for those who enter.

As our country becomes more diverse over the next few years, the government must be able to engage all abilities in public meetings. Meeting the basic rudimentary goal for involving the public by setting a time frame for public officials to listen to citizens will not suffice in a world where people demand more. Previous research has shown that these nonauthentic meetings can be counterproductive, causing citizens and public administrators to work against one another and become frustrated with the process instead of working together for solutions. In the Texas example, citizens were so annoyed with the public comment process that they filed a civil rights complaint, which prompted the state’s agency to guarantee interpretation and translation services at public meetings for people who do not speak English. While there is no doubt that both parties, the citizens and government officials, are affected when communities are excluded, and decisions are not transparent, it is increasingly important that government make use of diverse groups to help solve real community issues and concerns.

When citizens feel excluded in these meetings, there are serious consequences. First, citizens will lose trust in the government to provide the needed services to the community. Second, administrators will have increased cognitive dissonance and may discourage the adoption of inclusive policies because they may hold different beliefs about citizen involvement. Lastly, citizens may feel powerless because they may believe the system is not working for them. Excluding communities is incredibly disheartening, especially for those who are trying to participate in solving real community issues and concerns.

Once the government acknowledges the need to be more “inclusive,” it must encourage participation. To encourage engagement, we must consider who is unlikely to show up. Then, target recruitment and participation efforts for that group, focusing on their primary communities. Another way is to identify individuals with special considerations and work with local organizations to support the needs of individuals with disabilities. A pilot study might also help to assess the usefulness of such services over an extended period. Modeling inclusion when engaging with the public is essential for the government. After all, individuals, including those with disabilities and from marginalized groups, should feel welcomed, supported and heard in public decision-making processes.

Author: Lorita Copeland Daniels, Ph.D., is currently a visiting professor at College of Charleston in the Political Science Department. Her current research interests: local government, policy, accountability, and citizen engagement. Dr. Daniels received her Ph.D. from Virginia Tech. All views are her own. Contact her at [email protected].

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