Okay, so, a new U.S. Office of Public Participation (OPP) has not actually been created, but should it be? What could we do with a “Comptroller General for Civic Engagement,” appointed by the President for a 15 year term, like the Comptroller General of the United States in the Government Accountability Office (GAO)? Non-partisan (or all-partisan or post-partisan, if you prefer), the Comptroller General for Civic Engagement would be charged with designing small to large-scale civic engagement initiatives, and with consulting with members of the Executive Branch and Legislative Branch to do the same. When asked whether there is a better way to engage citizens in a Congressional district beyond an unruly town hall meeting, he/she can respond, that indeed, there is an OPP (Office of Public Participation) for that.
Why would we want to do this?
For some time, I have been studying public participation efforts conducted by presidents and their administrations, as well as by members of Congress. A few things are clear:
- Elected officials and their staff don’t always know the assortment of tools available to effectively and meaningfully engage citizens, and thus we end of with YouTube moments that may lead us to question the sanity of our system and perhaps of our people,
- When public participation processes are implemented, there are a few risks that are not always recognized. First, citizens may enter a process with inflated expectations regarding what they can accomplish or the power they have through their participation. I have referred to this as a democracy bubble, in which citizens, without properly managed expectations, may come to lose trust and confidence, and thus drop out of our political and governmental life, rather than more deeply engage within it. Second, citizens may not engage at all if they perceive the participation to be politically slanted. For instance, this fear was made clear in a presentation I gave recently to local government officials in Florida about some of the Obama administration’s civic engagement efforts. A participant asked, paraphrased, “How can we trust a participation process when the first people invited are those who have indicated support for the President?”
- For participation processes that last more than a single meeting but are intended to collect citizen information over time and incorporate that information into planning or policymaking, it is imperative for agencies and officials to in fact use the information. It is harmful to citizens and our democratic institutions if we invite citizens to participate but then pull the rug from under them by never using the output of their effort. This sort of behavior has been observed in federal participatory efforts.
- Public participation efforts that have been advanced by presidents and their administrations are not sustainable if tied to a specific office holder. For instance, President Carter pursued civic engagement opportunities aggressively, but his efforts were reversed under President Reagan. Every president has a different agenda and view on the role of citizens with government, as I document in a chapter of a new book on The State of Citizen Participation in America. The lack of continuity of the citizen experience can be harmful again for citizens and our democratic institutions.
These are only a few reasons why a neutral, long-term appointed position in a non/all/post-partisan Office of Public Participation can be helpful. If we are concerned about the state of citizenship and the civic health of our nation, as we should be, then we should seriously consider taking politics out of the planning of public participation. Politics belongs in the acts of citizenship, but politics in the planning of how citizens can be engaged meaningfully in our governance processes has too great a risk to exclude and to promote our current lack of civility in public dialogue. We can do better.
Do you agree?