Ways abound for pub­lic to help in­flu­ence pol­icy

Austin American-Statesman - - VIEWPOINTS - Schooler is a fel­low at the Cen­ter for Pub­lic Pol­icy Dis­pute Res­o­lu­tion at the Univer­sity of Texas and a com­mu­nity en­gage­ment con­sul­tant based in Austin.


his ac­cep­tance speech, Pres­i­dent Barack Obama in­cluded this ap­plause line: “The role of cit­i­zen 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 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 such as 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 per­cent 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.

The ex­clu­sion of the pub­lic from par­tic­i­pat­ing in their democ­racy can prove costly. Some sue to be heard and bleed the pub­lic’s cof­fers. 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 par­tic­i­pate in his com­mu­nity’s fu­ture and, with the help of a staff per­son, spends a half-hour com­plet­ing a very vis­ual lan­duse ex­er­cise. His and oth­ers’ 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 re-cre­at­ing 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 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.

The First Amend­ment 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 en­able any­one to of­fer in­put. 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 de­ci­sion­mak­ers. 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.

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