ON THE AGENDA | NOVEMBER 22ND, 2016 | Alisson Rizzolo

Can the Public Have a Real Voice in American Politics?

Public engagement experts and practitioners acknowledge the challenges that lie ahead for their field, but are optimistic about the future of democracy.

Watch a video of the discussion here.

This year’s election surfaced many divisions and frustrations, provoking questions, conversations and think pieces about the public’s appropriate role in politics. Is too much democracy a bad thing? Can we address our differences and move forward? Will the tools we use currently to engage the public be adequate for the radical moment we are in?

We explored some of these questions during a policy breakfast last week in New York City, “Can the Public Have a Real Voice in American Politics?” Participants in the event, a panel discussion, included public engagement experts and practitioners Carolyne Abdullah, director of the Strengthening Democratic Capacity Team at Everyday Democracy, Brad Lander, member of the New York City Council, and Matt Leighninger, vice president of public engagement at Public Agenda. The panel was moderated by Geraldine Moriba of CNN.

All three panelists acknowledged the challenges that lie ahead for public engagement in government. Still, they remain optimistic about the future of democracy and the public’s voice in politics. “We’re in for some hard times, but I feel ok,” said Lander.

Beginning with Transparency and Attention to Detail

When elected officials make decisions that affect the public without seeming to consider the public’s needs and concerns, resentment and frustration build. Many Americans are feeling a lack of agency in the decisions that affect their daily lives, and this feeling was sharply pronounced in the recent election.

At the same time, as Lander acknowledged, democratic decision making is more appropriate for some decisions than it is for others. Moreover, sometimes the popular decision isn’t the right decision. How can leaders navigate these tensions?

The first step is transparency, said Leighninger. Ninety percent of the decisions that officials make concern issues that the public wouldn’t even want to weigh in on, he said. The problem is that the public “doesn’t even know what the list is.” If the public doesn’t know what decisions their officials face, how can they assess whether they need or want to have a voice in those decisions?

The panelists agreed: We need robust public engagement on some decisions and expert decision making on others. But elected officials need to be transparent about the decisions they face and which may not necessitate public input. They need to provide space for meaningful public engagement on the decisions that warrant it, using processes that work well. Moreover, they must also communicate better about expert-level decisions, in a way that enables the public to absorb the information.

Lander acknowledged this may be difficult in practice, especially in light of the current public mood. “It’s easier to mobilize resentment and fear than to do the long, slow work of engagement,” he said.

Abdullah pointed out that details matter when it comes to public engagement. Officials may overlook the barriers to participation they may erect unknowingly. Who is the messenger, Abdullah asked? What language is used on the invitation? Officials also ought to be aware of time and schedule constraints their constituents may face. People care about many public issues, Abdullah said, but the barriers enforced by inattention to detail mean they can’t contribute.

Local Models that Show Promise

Communities around the country are experimenting with ways to more meaningfully and productively engage area residents in governance. One example of these innovations is participatory budgeting, or PB, which Lander has used in his district. (In the interest of full disclosure, Public Agenda serves as an independent evaluator of PB across the US and Canada.)

PB and other innovative public engagement models show promise in their communities. “Participatory budgeting works in red and blue communities in New York City,” said Lander. “When they’re working, these tools for democratic engagement do mobilize our better angels…People like to work together to solve problems.”

Leighninger noted PB has had positive outcomes in Brazil, where it started. He pointed to the ways that PB not only provides residents with a sense of agency, it also provides a means for residents to build social networks. Through these networks, people are able to find job connections, childcare and other supports.

At the same time, Lander admitted that such tools feel “radically inadequate” for the moment we’re in. Can we grow PB up to work more broadly? Public engagement tools require a lot of resources to do them well, yet constituents like the opportunity for authentic engagement. Our country already spends $5 billion annually on unproductive engagement processes, said Leighninger. What can we do to redirect those resources from activities that don’t really work?

What the Public Can Do Now

Meaningful and sustainable forms of public engagement in politics and governance will require patience, resources and time. Yet many Americans are feeling a need to act immediately. What can the public do in the short term?

Relationships and dialogue will be necessary to build bridges for progress, Abdullah noted, calling productive conversation between people with different perspectives a learning opportunity. This is an action that average citizens can take, she said.

She referred back to an experience she had in a community that had experienced a police shooting. Following the shooting, passions were high among both activists and police officers. A space was created for these two groups to come together for a productive conversation. At the end of the process, each group learned something about the other – about how they each think, about their life experiences. And these connections stuck. The community experiences a much tighter relationship between police and residents, including activists.

“There is potential for change, but we need to provide space for authentic conversation,” Abdullah said.

During this wide-ranging discussion, panelists also explored topics including voting, money in politics, engagement techniques for rural communities and what to do about the perceived marginalization of the white working class. We’ll post a video of the full discussion shortly. If you are interested in supporting or attending future policy breakfasts, contact Chandler at cbazemore@publicagenda.org.


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