This post is part of my series Keeping the Faith: Fostering Engaged Citizenship in the US.
- Part One: A Democracy in Crisis
- Part Two: It Doesn’t Have to be Like This — Practical Ways to Fix our Elections
- Part Three: Getting Off our Arses and Voting!
- Part Four: Too Busy to be the Public?
- Part Five: Civil Society
- Part Six: Internets in the Public Interest
- Part Seven: A Culture of Democracy
- Part Eight: Different Realities
Jefferson County, Colorado, where I live, is having a virtual public ‘meeting’ about changes to one of the main drags through my town. They’ve done some work trying to promote it, sending postcards to impacted neighborhoods, making a few announcements on social media, and using the mobile traffic message signs (points for creativity). There is a YouTube video outlining two proposals, one that our community can afford, and one that we can’t. The public can give feedback via Survey Monkey. Because these are preliminary proposals, there isn’t much detailed information on the environmental impacts. The residents most impacted may or may not be tech-savvy enough to comment. I found out about this on Monday, and the window for input closes on the 29th.
Why does it feel like this decision is already made?
The county is also currently accepting applications to engage in government by being on one of its many volunteer boards and commissions. These boards and committees handle essential stuff: the Jefferson Center for Mental Health board, the board of health, the housing authority board, the open space advisory committee. Twenty-two boards and commissions are looking to fill 63 plus positions.
One of the questions on the application reads:
“By clicking the box marked ‘Yes’ I acknowledge that I have read and understand the duties and functions of the board or commission, including the duties and obligations of persons serving as a member of this board or commission, and that the board or commission may, at times, require several hours per week outside normally scheduled meetings and hearings to perform site visits, review staff reports, attend programs, workshops, or training.”
There are unusual people who, after a long day at work and potentially a long commute, a second job, or kid’s activities, are raring to go to a meeting, hearing, or site visit. They can muster enthusiasm for reviewing staff reports and attending programs, workshops, and training. But let’s be honest. That isn’t most of us.
Civic involvement is a tough sell.
W.B. Yeats said that “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity,” in his apocalyptic poem that seems more and more suited to 2020. I don’t want to badmouth the people involved in local boards and commissions or attending public hearings. For one thing, not doing those things myself, I don’t have the right to talk. But it should hardly surprise us that often the most vehement are the loudest, or indeed only, voices representing public opinion.
My dad, who is a civil engineer, has many stories about how ill-informed (and sometimes absurd) the debate is at the many public meetings he has attended. My favorite is the woman who fiercely opposed paving a park parking lot because her dog preferred walking on dirt. Mind you, they were talking about the parking lot, not the trails. There are valid reasons to oppose paving a parking lot. That isn’t one of them.
The Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship outlines four recommendations for ensuring the responsiveness of political institutions, which is the general purpose of public meetings and voluntary board positions. Apparently, new meeting formats can help expand participation and minimize the domination of well-organized groups and deterioration into gripe-fests so common in public meetings.
The commission recommends expanding their adoption and leaving real room for public input instead of making the decisions and having the meetings only for show. They also suggest expanding the information available about local government issues, including adding translated summaries of meetings where appropriate; making sure to announce meetings well ahead of time; and scheduling them when most people can attend.
And that’s all within Recommendation 3.1: Adopt formats, processes, and technologies that are designed to encourage widespread participation by residents in official public hearings and meetings at local and state levels.
The commission recommends having members of congress engage with a random sampling of their constituents to have an informed and substantive conversation about policy at least quarterly (3.2). Participants would have the chance to interact personally with their representative. This sounds like governance by focus group. Focus groups are of debatable value in the era of big data, but they are still prevalent in the marketing industry. Given that it seems we currently have governance by a combination of special interests and polls, focus groups could hardly do worse.
There is no way for someone to represent nearly 750,000 constituents fully. Focus groups may be susceptible to groupthink, often dominated by the most outgoing, and have too small a sample size to garner valid data. Still, I would feel better if my congressperson had to talk to real people every so often.
If one congressional representative can’t engage with even a substantial sample of their constituents, what are the odds of 435 Representatives meaningfully interacting with all 328.2 million of us? In an expanded version of the focus group idea, the commission recommends Citizen’s Assemblies on issues of national import (5.3). There have been many models of this used in WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Democratic) countries just this century. The UK has one going on climate change, and Iceland used a version to set its course after its financial crisis, to name two instances. The system has been used with large enough samples of random citizens to even out some of the individual influence in smaller groups.
Finally, the commission recommends implementing similar systems at the state and local level, including approaches like Citizens’ Juries, Participatory Budgeting, Deliberative Polling, Dialogue to Change, and Citizens’ Initiative Review. All of these approaches have been used successfully in parts of the US or other countries.
These sound like great ideas, but the commission fails to address what I see as the number one barrier to civic engagement (and thus responsive government) in the US.
I was surprised to find that on the whole, we have slightly more leisure time on average than we did in the ’60s. In theory, we should be as well-rested, as ready to engage, as excited to join the PTA, a bowling league, and our civic organizations as that generation. Maybe even more so, since we now have even more theoretically time-saving gadgetry at our disposal, and extensive online networks to help us find other civically-minded people.
So what gives? I don’t have the resources to test my hypotheses, but here are some ideas about the situation.
- The American Time Use Survey, conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, relies on self-reporting. I posit that human memory (even recent memory, like yesterday) is a very fallible way to gather this data.
- Most women work now. How could that but leave less time for adulting?
- As of July 2019, 71% of all nonfarm payroll employees work in private service-providing industries. In 1962, it was 59.1%. Note that the 2019 figure doesn’t include public service-providing jobs. I assert that service jobs, where an employee has to be “on” all day, providing a bright and cheerful demeanor and good customer service, are socially exhausting. It is only the very extroverted who wish to engage with other people after a long day giving excellent customer service.
If we want a more responsive government, and we really should, we have to figure out why we are all so tired all the time. It will do us no good to implement all four of the commission’s fine recommendations, from the national to the local, if no one will show up.