This afternoon, I am giving a talk to a number of visiting diplomats from francophone African nations. The theme of their trip is “transparency and openness.” I’ve been asked to kick off their stay here. Following is a slightly edited version of my notes. (I tried to make it readable.)
Transparency And Civic Participation
Talk to the Phelps-Stokes Fund
March 16, 2009
As he began his term, President Obama issued a handful of memos. One was an Executive Order on Ethics. The other was a memorandum on Transparency and Open Government. Much focus has been on the ethics. Just last week there was a cover story in the Washington Post about Norm Eisen, the White House’s “ethics czar.” His job is to tell staffers in the White House what they can’t do. He scurries around with a huge binder of the ethics laws. And he’s just one out of 6,000 ethics officials in the administration.
But transparency and openness are as important as ethics – or even more so. Here’s what President Obama wrote about transparency: “Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their Government is doing. Information obtained by the Federal Government is a national asset.”
As I prepared for this talk, I asked a number of people about transparency. “Why be transparent?” was my question. What I heard was surprising. Sure, many people said things like “it’s good,” and “it’s important to be transparent,” but other themes emerged. Two in particular stood out. Two sides, really, of the same coin.
One person said: Transparency isn’t for everybody. You have to be willing to take a hit, hear negative things about you. It doesn’t just mean opening yourself up to the world. It means being open to criticism.
Another said: Would transparency and openness to become ineffective if every voice shouts out in opposition to those surrounding him or her? Transparency is good when people are calm enough to make it a useful tool.
Two sides of the same coin here: from the government’s perspective, transparency can be rough. From the citizen’s perspective, there can be too much. These people see a connection between transparency and civic participation. In the first case, transparency implies citizens speaking up, stepping forward. In the second case, there’s a call for citizens to slow down enough to make the best use of transparency.
Both are key, according to Obama, who says this about participation: “Public engagement enhances the Government’s effectiveness and improves the quality of its decisions. Knowledge is widely dispersed in society, and public officials benefit from having access to that knowledge.”
President Obama sees the same duality. However, this connection of transparency and openness to information is interesting and we will talk about it more in a bit.
The problem we face in the United States, I would argue, is more a crisis of participation than of transparency.
In America, there are more barriers than there are incentives to civic participation. This is ironic, considering we are the oldest, longest-running experiment in self-governance on the globe. Even more ironic, these barriers are created not by government but by our own selves and by the very organizations that would seek to foster participation.
I talk to people all around the country, in informal groups, in discussion sessions, and in formal focus groups. We typically talk about about how they see and interact with issues and public life. I see the same thing that my friend and colleague Richard Harwood has written about:
- Americans are anxious and apprehensive about their communities and about their nation. They agree on very little. While the economy is an overarching theme, no other single issue captures the attention of Americans; they don’t rally around any one thing
- One thing they do agree on is that there is a huge divide between themselves and everything else having to do with so-called “civil society” — leaders, community, neighbors. Public life is apart from my life – something alien, something I would never take part in. Even the people who are involved, who take part, feel detached and they participate with an uneasiness that the costs are almost too high
- This has driven people to be atomized, to retreat into small, groups — family, work, friends. The idea of “citizen” is just the bare minimum: Taxpayer, law abider, voter (sometimes).
What will it take for people to emerge, into the public square? That’s the question we all need to ask.
Here in the United States, we are at a moment when there appears to be a rise in people’s willingness to engage with one another in the public square. It has been catalyzed by Obama’s election.
However, this is fragile and already is showing signs of dissipating: just look at our political landscape. People seem on the brink of being driven back inward.
- The economy is placing great stress on people as they hunker down.
- The disconnect between the debates taking place in Washington and people’s real lives remains huge.
Meanwhile, there a number of organizations – and a number of levels of government – who try to bring people out of their shells. There is a whole industry devoted to it. These organizations, though, fall into familiar traps.
Some see the issue as one of “knowledge,” as if citizens are out to learn something, or gather information. “If only people knew more they would be better citizens.” This only engages a handful – mostly the people who are already engaged. (This is the trap Obama’s memo falls into.)
Some treat people almost as means to a political end – things to be manipulated. Issue campaigns push the public out by telling them their “voice counts” but only if it is in service of their agenda. The well-meaning seek “input,” not engagement. They create complex processes, and experts drive the whole enterprise.
Many treat people, as Harwood often says, as consumers rather than citizens. They tell citizens that they will be able to achieve a particular outcome if they will get involved – in fact they use this as a draw. Many government agencies continually ask the public to evaluate how they are doing from a customer service standpoint – how are we doing? What do you want from us?
Treating citizens as consumers, though, is exactly the mindset that is the problem. This is the biggest threat to civic engagement that exists. This just encourages people to vent frustrations and make demands. It appeals to self-interest rather than aspirations.
It encourages people to drive themselves out of the public square.
But, it is insidious. It’s a short term vs. long term problem. In the short term, it is attractive to get people involved by telling them they will get something. But the purpose of civic involvement is not to achieve a certain result…if that were the case, then everyone who voted for a losing candidate would (and should) go home and never vote again. No, civic involvement is a good in and of itself. It’s a fundamental requirement of a working democracy.
What would it look like if the public square looked as we know it should?
These are the things that happen in conversations that are truly public:
- People focus on their hopes
- People acknowledge the drawbacks of their favored positions
- People try to let their self-interested take a back seat to the good of the community
- People listen to others
- People see that they can – must – play a role
- People show wisdom
Policy makers need to know: people are very capable of weighing choices and tradeoffs against what they hold valuable – more than you think.
For organizations that want to truly help people to step out of their small circles and into the public square, here are five keys to keep in mind moving forward:
- Start with hopes, not problems
- Don’t force choices before people have talked about what they hold valuable
- Take small steps that are manageable
- Frame the issues publicly – for instance, people want to talk about how to “educate all children,” not about an “achievement gap”
- Treat people as citizens who must take part in solutions, not consumers who can come or go as they please
(Note: I owe a great debt to my friend and colleague Richard Harwood for many of the ideas in this post.)