Story by: Chris Green
The everyday experiences and insights of the public are underutilized resources in addressing our most difficult civic problems. Maybe we should start changing that by building a new, trustworthy process.
The relationship between constituents and their elected officials feels more strained than ever these days, bringing the prospect of increasingly ugly and dysfunctional times for democracy in our communities, state and nation.
People too often distrust government and feel disconnected from the decisions that those in authority are making, even at the local level. Elected officials face massive problems that dwarf their expertise and authority, defy quick fixes and force them to make agonizing choices between competing values and compelling priorities.
But what if everything that was wrong with our current political system was actually a great opportunity? If elected officials could entrust John and Jane Q. Public with some power to make meaningful decisions about their communities, we might be able to make progress in rebuilding the bonds of trust needed to hold our society together. We might even end up making more progress on our most daunting challenges.
There could be benefits for all involved. Elected officials wouldn’t have to tackle the most difficult problems facing the state or their communities on their own. They’d have more people walking a mile in their shoes. They might know what level of support exists for the changes they are making well before they stand before voters on Election Day.
Residents would have another mechanism to ensure that their own values and experiences are taken into consideration when government makes decisions. They would gain a little more control and power over the decisions being made. And because they would have to struggle to reconcile their own needs and the views of others, they might be more likely to find compromises they could live with and support (rather than rhetorically throwing stones at any idea that isn’t exactly what they had in mind).
It’s not something that is going to happen in a flash, and there are sure to be bumps in the road. But after surveying the landscape of politics and what’s called “deliberative democracy” for several months and talking to a number of experts in the civic field, I’ve come to the conclusion that amplifying the voices of everyday people for their help in solving deeply entrenched problems is going to be crucial for the future success of our democracy.
If you’re a citizen, it’s time to think about getting more involved and ask the elected officials who serve you to provide you with opportunities to make meaningful decisions on important public issues. And if you’re an elected official or government manager, it’s time to start thinking about how you can use your authority to experiment with ways to push decision-making powers to the people you serve.
Even simple changes, such as elected officials actively looking for opportunities to engage the public, actively seeking out people to participate and expecting the public to contribute to making hard choices can make a big difference, according to Consensus, a regional nonprofit in Kansas City, Missouri, that works on public engagement matters.
A working group of scholars, practitioners and public officials has even produced a guide, “Making Public Participation Legal,” that includes model local ordinances and state legislation that can be adopted to revise the legal framework for public participation. The publication also outlines policy options and techniques for strengthening the public’s role in policy matters.
THE EXCEPTION, NOT THE RULE
Before I talk more about amplifying the public’s voice, I want to be clear about what I’m not talking about. Public hearings, traditional town hall meetings, advisory councils and panel-driven forums are some of the most common ways that members of the general public are allowed to give their input in Kansas and elsewhere these days. These efforts can be and sometimes are useful, but they are generally more for people in authority to gather information than they are for the public to have influence over their communities.
Amplifying public voices requires entrusting people with real decisions where they have to, at the very least, weigh difficult value choices. And their preferences should carry some weight with decision makers. Absent that, public participation is, at best, little more than a feel-good initiative.
At worst, public hearings, advisory committees and 30-day public comment periods are not better than nothing. This is the view of Matt Leighninger, former executive director of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium who now works for Public Agenda, a research and engagement nonprofit based in New York.
In a 2014 article, Leighninger argues that “conventional participation practices are far more damaging than we realize.
“Because they require time and resources to organize, they divert public officials and employees from more productive pursuits. Because they erode trust and communication, they make public problem-solving more difficult. And because they damage the relationship between the public and government, they may also have an impact on tax revenues and the sustainability of public institutions,” he states.
In surveys, fewer than 1 in 5 Kansans say they attend government meetings. And I can’t say that I blame them. If your one chance to contribute is being able to offer three minutes of comments from behind a lecturn a moment or two before a decision is going to be made, it’s understandable that you might want to spend your time elsewhere.
However, more robust forms of engagement between the public and their elected officials are still rare enough that it might be difficult for many Kansans to imagine what nontraditional approaches look like. As a way to help you, here’s a simple example.
When your local school district, county commission or city council passes a budget, it is required by law to conduct a public hearing before approving it. Which is all fine and good, except that the bulk of the budget is pretty much already written by the time of the hearing. You and others can step up to a mic at the meeting and request tweaks, but the values and vision that govern how money is being spent in the community is, in many ways, already set.
What if your local school board anticipated a difficult budget year and convened a committee of nonofficials to work with elected officials in developing the budget in a way that reflects community values and began working months prior to it needing to be approved. Or, what if your local city council set aside a certain percentage of funding for special projects that members of the public direct?
These aren’t hypothetical scenarios. In places such as Chicago, residents in one political subdivision are given the chance to determine how infrastructure funds are spent. In Boston, local officials have gone as far as giving young people ages 12 to 25 the power to decide where $1 million will be spent to improve the community. There have been giant town hall meetings involving diverse groups of residents who helped establish priorities for rebuilding lower Manhattan after 9/11 and reconstructing New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Moreover, Kansas City recently served as one of six lead sites for a national dialogue on mental health that utilized iPads and keypads for small-group discussions and led to the development of a community action plan that aims to change the climate around mental health issues in the community.
We have national organizations such as the Kettering Foundation, whose activities include helping organize deliberative public policy forums around the country. Closer to home, we have Kansas State’s Institute for Civic Discourse and Democracy, headed by the nationally recognized David Procter, and Consensus, headed by Jennifer Wilding, that convene important discussions on civic topics such as juvenile justice reform. Wilding, whom I talked with in the early stages of crafting this story, and her organization helped Johnson County officials engage the public as it faced difficult budget decisions in 2012 (the subject of a story that year in The Journal).
It’s not like Kansas doesn’t have elected officials who appreciate the importance of engaging the public in decision making. But for all the resources and interest – and Kansas may have more than its fair share – amplifying the public’s voice remains the exception rather than the rule in state and local government. Some of the barriers are systemic. As a result, bridging the divides between constituents and their governments are very much an example of an adaptive challenge, the kind of challenges we talk so much about here at KLC.
THE LIMITS OF EXPERTISE
One of the challenges at play is that divides between the public and the people who represent them are basically hard-wired into our democracy, says Hawaii state Sen. Les Ihara, a member of the Kettering Foundation board of directors, who is also active with the National Conference of State Legislatures. When our governments were created, we set them up to be representative democracies, in which people vote to have someone represent them in a state or national assembly (or closer to home, the county commission, school board or city council).
“Legislators,” Ihara says, “swear to uphold state constitutions that establish a representative form of democracy.” The public, though, still has a sense that it has some direct role in democracy – even though, technically speaking, that role is simply to vote for somebody every two or four years who makes all decisions.
It’s no wonder then, that elected officials and constituents often don’t see eye to eye. “It’s like people living on different planets,” Ihara says.
Our nation’s founders distrusted too much democracy, fearing the “tyranny of the majority,” to quote a phrase used by John Adams, and sought to create some distance between elected representatives and the masses.
Other barriers to public participation came later. One of the lasting legacies of the Progressive Era (which lasted from about the 1890s to the 1920s), as Leighninger, the author of the book “The Next Form of Democracy,” has pointed out, is that our governmental systems became infused
with an “expert orientation to governance.”
The progressives targeted the waste, fraud and corruption running rampant in the political machines at the time and sought to elevate a scientific approach to problem solving. The assumption that technocrats – skilled elites – can solve public problems through specialized knowledge remains a powerful undercurrent in governance today that often leads us astray.
While I appreciate the value of knowledge and expertise, they most certainly have their limits. Too often, those in authority succumb to the temptation to engage only with experts and other authorities. They don’t give a lot of thought to what role, if any, the public should have.
Changes made in the name of public good may rarely involve much formal effort to try to consult the public.
Democracy has a long, messy, imperfect history in our country, but the general arc has been toward pushing decision-making power into the hands of more people. It’s a push that can create new problems even as it solves old ones. But it seems like a hard sell to ask people, who are granted so much decision-making power in many other areas of their lives now (and are increasingly connected to the happenings of the world and one another through social media), to serve as bystanders in areas of public policy.
Recent experience should tell us that it’s time to set aside some of our dependency on experts and begin stepping into a new era, one where authority and expertise remain resources to be used. But instead of spending those resources to create quick-fix solutions, we should be using them as catalysts to engage a broader array of people in working on the problem themselves.
Here’s why: Most of the really tough problems we face these days aren’t simply technical in nature. They also have adaptive elements, as we say at the Kansas Leadership Center, which require deliberation of public values and widespread acceptance of losses and trade-offs. The way we generally think about government’s role, the technical side, only addresses one portion of the problems we face.
Tackling value-laden adaptive challenges requires attending to the thornier elements of the problems, not just seeking an authority- or expert-driven quick fix. It requires engaging the people who live with the problem but don’t have their hands directly on the levers of power.
MAKING CONSEQUENCES AND TRADE-OFFS CLEAR
Look around our country’s civic landscape and you’ll see the ground littered with examples where expertise has come up short to some degree in the development of public policy. President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act passed largely through dialogue and debate involving experts and those in authority. While it has survived court and political challenges to remain the law of the land, it still remains more unpopular than popular with the public at large, according to recent polls.
Or take the historic Kansas income tax cut bill, developed with the help of tax consultant Arthur Laffer, that Republican Gov. Sam Brownback signed into law with great fanfare in 2012. The governor famously promised the legislation would be a “shot of adrenaline” to the state’s economy. But despite some positive economic indicators, such as a low state unemployment rate, the promised boom has never materialized. Instead, lawmakers find themselves struggling to reconcile a structural imbalance in the state budget year-in and year-out because the revenues our state collects trail what our government spends.
I don’t mean to disparage experts, because I have no doubt that their knowledge is valuable. I wouldn’t want for us to make big choices in governing ourselves without expertise. But we should be honest about the limits of expertise to shape our state and country for the better.
A well-designed health care system or tax plan is only as good as the broader public’s acceptance of what is gained or lost in the process (and there are definitely losses to be experienced in both of the above scenarios). But too often the question of what the public actually thinks or wants gets ignored or glossed over. We often end up holding back from forcing everyday people to confront reality – the tough values choices that lie at the heart of nearly every important issue.
Are income tax cuts more important than spending more money on education and social services? Are the benefits of making sure that everyone has health insurance worth changing a system that many people already insured are satisfied with? What is the common good in these situations, and how do I reconcile that with what might be best for me as an individual? Am I willing to accept the risks and trade-offs inherent in trying something different?
In his 2014 memoir, public opinion analyst and political scientist Daniel Yankelovich bemoaned how supporters of health care reform had erred by not giving the public a more meaningful role in shaping the policy. “If its supporters had taken the trouble to lay out the choices for public deliberation, with their consequences and trade-offs made explicit, and had used this framing to engage the public, our health care system might now be less of a monster whose out-of-control costs threaten to engulf our economy,” Yankelovich writes in “Wicked Problems, Workable Solutions: Lessons from a Public Life.”
You could make a similar argument for public deliberation on the Brownback tax plan. I do believe our elected representatives gather information and make good-faith guesses about what they think the public really wants. But there are strong incentives for politicians to tell us only the side of the story they want us to hear (or the only side they really know). It’s rarely framed as a choice of competing values.
As a result, it’s no wonder that so many Kansans and others across the country feel disconnected from politics and government. This is a tragedy, because public voices can be a powerful resource, if we’re willing to take the time and muster the energy to harness them.
A WILLINGNESS TO DIALOGUE
How do we do that? My first inclination is that we need to start small and local. Local governments – city council, county commissions and school boards – remain closest to the people and are already the ones where public engagement in decision making is most likely to occur. Even if just 10 percent of the cities, counties and school boards developed and tried more robust, nontraditional public engagement approaches within the next year or two, it could make Kansas a national leader in connecting people to government decisions. The understanding we could gain would be invaluable.
But state legislators and those serving in the U.S. House and Senate would be wise to take notice, too. The issues they wrestle with are often the ones that stir the greatest passions in the most people.
It could be risky, but imagine hundreds of Kansans gathering to have a thoughtful dialogue about gun violence or immigration, one where they are forced to consider all the different perspectives around those issues and perhaps recommend ways forward. While there’s no way to avoid passionate disagreement on such issues, I would be willing to bet that a roomful of respectful Kansans with good, trustworthy information could come up with a good diagnosis of the situation and maybe even common-sense paths to progress. Imagine those prescriptions, say, becoming the basis for a bill that gets filed in Congress or the Kansas Statehouse, and then influences the debate among elected officials.
Giving the public a more direct pipeline to addressing the most pressing issues of the day could be one way of combating the growing levels of disenchantment with our governments – which are measured in everything from low voting rates to a lack of trust in government and elected officials. If more people felt like they have a role in shaping what happens, then those policies might have more legitimacy. Allowing more public input also would give people the opportunity to demonstrate that their voices have real power to effect change, which is supposed to be at the heart of democracy. Voting rights might not be enough anymore. We have to provide people with more ways to shape the civic environment in between elections.
As excited as I am about the concept, the obstacles toward robust public engagement are not small. Most efforts to engage the public fail to reach their full potential. It’s time consuming and sometimes expensive work that may require staffing assistance that some government officials (such as state legislators) don’t have. And even those engagement efforts that are well done typically are one-off affairs that may not continue over time. It’s hard to get groups of people with diverse viewpoints together, and existing systems aren’t really set up to be hospitable climates for handing even basic decisions over to the public.
But I also fear our democracy is at a tipping point. If we want to remain a “government of, by and for the people”– to borrow from another president, Abraham Lincoln – then we need to be able to turn more Kansans into active, caring citizens. To make it clear that what they think, say and do truly matter.
Let’s give Kansans the opportunity to have conversations worth showing up for. If people felt that their views and efforts truly mattered to the outcome, would more people become civically engaged? I think it’s time our civic culture in Kansas put a whole lot more energy into trying to find out.
This article was originally published in the Fall 2016 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. For a subscription to the printed edition of The Journal, visit klcjr.nl/amzsubscribe