The Case for Citizen Engagement

Carolyn J. Lukensmeyer, Executive Director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse, and founder and former President of AmericaSpeaks, is the author of the forthcoming Jossey-Bass book, Bringing Citizen Voices to the Table: A Guide for Public Managers. This piece serves as a reminder–especially to those of us in the US leading up to our presidential election– that a true democracy requires engagement of all of it’s citizens.

How is it that the 12 members of the Congressional Supercommittee charged with hammering out a critical budget compromise in the summer of 2011 could, after three months of work, simply throw up their hands, when a year and half before, 3,500 ideologically diverse Americans sat down together for one day and came to consensus about what to do?

In June, 2010, in 57 cities across the country, tea-partiers, move-on members and a whole lot of average, middle-of-the-road citizens talked across their differences on our fiscal crisis.  When given an opportunity to look at the facts and talk through their concerns, they were quite capable of reaching the compromises necessary to put our country back on a track of fiscal responsibility.  Politicians and elected officials of all stripes — egged-on by a rabidly destructive media — would have you believe otherwise.  It’s in their interest to perpetuate the current narrative that the public’s views are too entrenched and contradictory for compromise; that Americans would rather hold on to an idea than reach across the table.  This is pure bunk.   Americans know, and have proven over and over again, that when given an opportunity to deliberate civilly with fellow citizens of diverse viewpoints, they can indeed make the important decisions that need to be made.

So what if millions of Americans regularly came together to deliberate about a wide range of critical national issues like health care, immigration, and education?  What if the recommendations they made actually guided the actions of our national policy-makers?  What if the common ground they found was reflected in the tone of national politics? What if all the elements necessary to make such citizen engagement happen — the spaces to hold the discussion, the technology needed to bring millions of voices together, the human resources to facilitate it — were in place?   If all this were true, we would be a nation that does more than just aspire to listen to its citizens.  We would be a nation that actually does so on a regular basis.   We would be a credible democracy.

Institutionalizing Citizen Engagement in our Democracy

A healthy democracy depends on sound electoral practices as well as sound governing practices.  Many of the roots of the political dysfunction gripping our nation today can be found in electoral politics: partisan redistricting practices, the enormous amount of money influencing the outcome of elections, and attempts at voter suppression, to name just a few.  As the presidential election draws near, many of these issues are – or should be – foremost in our minds.   Of equal importance, however, is what happens after the election is over and our officials turn their attention to governing.  At this juncture we see a different problem: a failure to secure a place for citizens’ authentic participation.  Yes, we can vote and respond to polls or surveys; some of us get to participate in an occasional referendum; and we can comment on federal rule-making.  But beyond that, meaningful opportunities for citizens to regularly participate in government decision-making are few and far between.

If citizens are not given authentic opportunities to participate, then leaders cannot know their true values and their collective will.  Further, the absence of this collective citizen voice makes it impossible for our elected leaders and decision-makers to come to compromises and make the tough choices that are necessary to meet the serious challenges facing our nation.  We see their paralysis of action every day when we open the newspaper.

This is a problem that can be solved.  For a long time, America has been a hotbed of innovation in developing a wide range of citizen engagement methods.  We know how to do it with consistently effective results.  After nearly 20 years of experience in the democracy field, I have consistently observed that when citizens are given an authentic opportunity to engage in decision-making — when public will is connected to political will — the power of special interests can be substantially reduced, decisions have greater staying power, and the public’s trust in our governing institutions increases. Further, every element of the supportive infrastructure we need for robust citizen engagement already exists in some form in some places around the country.   And perhaps most importantly, the American people really want to do it.  In a nationwide survey, the National Conference on Citizenship found that more than 80% of respondents were supportive of regular, organized national discussions on critical issues, and that the support crossed political lines: 60% of Republicans and 70% of Democrats described themselves as “strongly” in favor.

But how do we do it on a regular basis, all across our county?

To engage our citizenry, and reinvigorate our democracy, three constituencies will have to re-imagine their roles and begin to establish a new “business as usual.”

The people will have to demand that they be given authentic opportunities to participate in governance on a regular basis.  They must be willing to become more active in their role as citizens.  The current level of public frustration about the problems facing our nation may finally be motivating citizens to demand this role.  The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements are potential signs of their readiness.

Elected officials will have to declare their allegiance to the idea of routine citizen engagement in decision-making and take concrete action to implement it.  They will have to ensure that citizens have the opportunities they are seeking to play a role in governance.

Public managers who lead our government agencies and programs will not only have to embrace this course, but creatively embed it in their daily work.  Their pivotal role in governance provides both ample opportunities for engaging citizens as well as the real promise of success.

Under no circumstances can we fail in this task.  Far removed from the voices of the citizenry, every day hyper-partisan politics undermines our government’s ability to act on critical issues.  Inaction brings harm to all of us.  Is this the democracy our founders envisioned?  Is this the America in which we want to live?  Are “of the people, by the people and for the people” merely antiquated words on the walls of our classrooms?   They will be unless we pursue a different course.

image courtesy of nirots/


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