Many friends and colleagues have worked hard on something called the Agenda For Strengthening America’s Democracy. Put simply, this is an effort by an broad array of people in the “civic participation” field to lay out a set of principles that could guide the Obama administration moving forward. They see this as a reasonable thing to do because President-Elect Obama has been a proponent of civic engagement. Indeed, his transition office is already implementing plans for large-scale dialogue about health care reform.
A network of people who are a part of the civic participation field has developed a set of talking points about this, which reads in part:
“Public engagement” or “citizen engagement” is more than just getting people to vote and to volunteer in their communities. Government must also engage citizens in the policy decisions that affect their lives.
Our nation is at a unique point in its history. We face great, unprecedented challenges, but we also have remarkable opportunities for change. Now is the time to come together to advance the ideals that we all share.
There are many meaningful and exciting ways the new administration can build on the citizen engagement it began in the election campaign and carry it into governance.
A new civic engagement agenda signals a new way of governing.
I agree completely — yet I am torn. On the one hand, I am a strong believer in the wisdom of citizens when it comes to difficult policy issues, and I equally strongly believe that political leaders ought to develop mechanisms for listening to this wisdom.
However, I have equally strong misgivings about the formalization of “civic engagement” mechanisms within government. To the extent that civic engagement efforts are mandated and (worse) bureaucratized — I worry that they work against the very spirit of citizen participation.
The Agenda has three main thrusts. It calls for the creation of a White House-level “Office of Civic Engagement,” for the government to institute “large scale dialogue” efforts, and for legislative changes to make voting easier and implement a grab-bag of electoral reforms that have been kicking around for some time (instant runoff voting, proportional representation, etc.).
But, to my mind, civic participation’s power lies in its extra-governmental (and even extra-institutional) status. Small groups of citizens working together to solve problems is far different from organized “discussion groups” whose objective is to generate “input” for “policy makers.”
Still, according to the talking points:
A healthy democracy needs the capacity to involve its citizens in key decisions. Government cannot be left to leaders, experts, and pundits with the public only weighing in on election day. People from all walks of life should be encouraged to wrestle with tough questions, seek common ground, and develop and articulate their views. Policymakers should see themselves as part of this larger process, not as a world unto themselves.
I agree with that, too.
And so I am left wondering what to do. I support my friends on the broad aims, but I differ on some of the key strategies.
One friend whom I wrote asking how he might respond to this struggle said he shared my misgivings about turning participation into an institution, yet says that, “At the same time, I think we have to try. We face too many monumental challenges to not try everything we can to engage as many people as possible in the hard work we face.”
My friend makes a very good point. What will engage the greatest number of people, in substantive ways, without ultimately driving them away? That’s the question I am wrestling with.