Yesterday I wrote about misgivings I have in connecting civic engagement too closely with the formal workings of government.
My main concern is that citizen-generated activity could tend to be stifled and bureaucratized by creating some kind of “office of civic engagement” or an “engagement czar” (this is akin to President Bush’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives). However, with the right kind of leadership, and support at the highest levels, such an office could have a hugely beneficial effect on the quality of our public life. In the end, I support such a move.
But there are other dangers, too. These have to do with politics (as opposed to government). The main problem here is that politics doesn’t know what to make of civic engagement.
This is a big problem for those of us who labor in this field — how do we let elected officials and other policy makers know about the results of public dialogue? How can we suggest it best be integrated into governance? No one has yet answered this question, from my observations.
(I wrote a report for the National Issues Forums Institute describing the efforts of one member of Congress to use citizen engagement as a way of gaining community knowledge.)
The Obama-Biden transition office is in the midst of a series of “community meetings” on health care reform. Seeing how these play out and how they are reported on is illuminating.
News coverage has chiefly used two frames. One frame is the “listening session” frame, in which the meetings are portrayed as an informal chance for HHS Secretary-designate Tom Daschle to gain first-hand knowledge of people’s concerns with health care. The other frame is the “political ammunition” frame, in which this effort represents the opening moves in an effort to build a grassroots, mobilizeable base on which to rely when the health care reform fight begins to get ugly. Politico’s coverage today is a good example.
Each of these frames is patently politics-as-usual: Citizens are either being asked to give testimony in a hearing, or they are being whipped into a frenzy so they can be mobilized.
Certainly, the former perception is preferable to the latter. But the default position for political journalists is skepticism — it’s easy for this effort to come off as just a campaign salvo.
Even so, there’s another area where the effort can fall short, and that’s in the organizing. It is, after all, a political office that is responisble for planning and administering these community meetings. Politics is fast-moving and in its day-to-day workings it relies heavily on doing what’s beeen shown to work in the past. And so, for all its talk of being a “different” way to engage citizens on the health care debate, when you look at the community meeting discussion guide, it looks very much like a meeting designed to elicit sound bites and quotes. (To be fair, this is the participant guide; I have not been able to find a way to access the moedrator’s guide. If someone has a copy, please let me know.)
One of the great strengths of community dialogues when it comes to policy-making is that they provide a forum in which citizens can wrestle with the trade offs and downsides of various plans and approaches. But people typically need to be pushed to have such conversations. This is only natural — but when the reluctance is overcome, dramatic new insights can arise.
For civic engagement to be “used” most effectively, it needs to be organized in a way that recognizes its value. In order for that to happen, existing mindsets — those of journalists and those of political staffers — will need to be overcome. This is a tall order, but it is doable.
One way to help is for the “civic participation” community to continue to be as involved and engaged with the Obama-Biden transition office as it has been.
In that respect, the Agenda for Strengtheining America’s Democracy is a great step.