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Revisiting Citizen Engagement – The Antidote for Political Division

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

By Patrick S. Malone
December 11, 2023

Political division is nothing new in the United States. Over the years the nation has endured all the ups and downs that life in a democratic republic has to offer. But this time, the intensity seems more pronounced than ever. Polarization has changed the way Americans live, shop and work. Recent research found that more than half of Americans consider a civil war in the United States a real possibility. You read that correctly. More than half. Trust in government is on a steady decrease, elected officials are being expelled from Congress and former Presidents are under indictment. It’s a scenario that few could have ever envisioned. 

The world of terse discourse is having a pronounced impact on our nation and citizens are trying their best to navigate this tempestuous environment. Anxiety is elevated, with emotional illnesses skyrocketing from 298 million citizens to 374 million, a 25 percent increase. Young adults fare the worst with 30.6 percent struggling with mental health challenges. Meanwhile, three out of five Americans report being lonely some or all the time. But oddly enough, these dire times present us with a unique opportunity: a chance to revisit the power of citizen engagement. 

Citizen engagement is often referred to in the public and policy landscape as a way to bolster democratic values. As citizens become more involved in the implementation of public policy, communities are closer, services are more impactful and trust in government grows. Citizen involvement in decision making is hallmark of constitutional values and citizen contributions bridge a critical gap between public service and the community it serves. But in today’s divided world, the focus on the word ‘engagement’ takes on a new importance. Yes, citizen engagement improves our communities, but in time like these, it does more. It provides chances for citizens to connect as human beings. It also improves relationships among our neighbors—a much needed antidote to today’s political divide. 

Psychologists and experts in social sciences have long pointed to the advantage of human connection. Psychological safety is often touted as the primary factor for organizational success. When we are connected with others, we feel a sense of safety, a sense of calm and belonging. The physical and mental benefits are measurable. Self-awareness and social awareness bring a connection and a dialogue that fuels trust, inclusion and acceptance. In our efforts to promote citizen engagement for all the policy reasons we’ve come to appreciate, it appears the above tangential benefits may be even more important today. 

Communities around the nation already have citizen engagement efforts underway and there’s no lack of good examples of bringing our communities together. Consider the following:

  • Tallahassee, FL – 70 young people in Tallahassee were given new job and education opportunities as part of a program called TEMPO. This innovative initiative brought stakeholders together to focus on enhancing prospects of disconnected youth.
  • Struthers, OH – Officials in this midwestern town worked to create a comprehensive city plan by actively pursuing input from citizens they don’t normally hear from, specifically youth and senior residents.
  • Vancouver, BC.  Metro Vancouver officials have gained a reputation for their creative methods of bringing citizens together. Nothing is off the table including a mix of online services, switching the location of council meetings to make them more accessible, and encouraging citizens to get out and meet those in their neighborhood.
  • Carlisle, PA. The city of Carlisle built an innovative online platform (CitizenLab) that brought together citizens from all parts of the community to discuss the redesign of public spaces in and around the city.

Clearly these and many other similar initiatives across the country are of tremendous benefit to the individual communities. Some municipalities offer streaming public meetings, more online opportunities, citizen advisory committees or support groups. Others go as far as offering free services such as the free home security survey offered by the town of Oak Hill, TN or Watsonville, CAs environmental science workshop that brings people together to dialogue on the preservation of its natural resources. But these engagement options do more than we give them credit for. These efforts not only foster better relations and more impactful programs between local government and the community, but they also create space for getting to know one another, sharing ideas and welcoming opposing viewpoints.

The beauty of these and other community engagement initiatives is that they do far more than make government better. They make people better by offering a safe space, one that is welcoming, supportive and inclusive. They offer a place for us to connect, not disconnect. And in a world of divisiveness and disconnection, isn’t that a breath of fresh air?

Author:  Patrick S. Malone is the Director, Key Executive Leadership Programs at American University.  He is a frequent guest lecturer and author on leadership and organizational dynamics in the public service.  His co-authored book, “Leading with Love and Laughter – A Practical Guide to Letting Go and Getting Real” (Berrett-Koehler Publishing) was released in Spring 2021. Follow him at sutchmalone.com Twitter:  @DrPatrickMalone

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