Story by: Chris Green
Differing Visions of Public Engagement in Politics and Government
THE CURRENT REALITY
Meaningful public engagement tends to be the exception rather than the rule.
Far too often, it’s a perfunctory exercise – a box to checked off in the form of a hearing required by law – or an afterthought. Even when it does occur, it can be so far disconnected from actual government decisions that it does little to strengthen the connection between people and their government.
I don’t really blame anyone for this. I believe that many elected officials and citizens are trying hard. But democracy is tough and this is an area where I think we can do better.
I attended a forum at the beginning of this year that was put on by the South Central Kansas Legislative Delegation at the Sedgwick County Courthouse. Legislators sat on one side of the room; the public filed into chairs on the other side. In between them was a no-man’s-land, a space of several feet, broken only by the presence of a lecturn in the middle.
Over the course of the meeting, legislators heard from 30-some people. But at least another 20 people ended up being turned away because there wasn’t enough time available for them to address lawmakers.
The 16 legislators present mostly sat and listened patiently as individuals strode to the mic and used their allotted three minutes to deliver impassioned pleas or pointed criticism. Sometimes commenters sparked bursts of applause or cheering from the audience, with a few going so far as to egg on fellow members of the crowd. There were few follow-up questions.
Although the meeting was rambunctious at times and featured pointed comments, it wasn’t really uncivil or mean spirited. But at a time when state government was grappling with massive issues, including revenue shortfalls and the funding of public schools, and faced increased public scrutiny, the experience felt to me like a missed opportunity.
I left feeling as though there was very little meaningful dialogue. I didn’t see much evidence that many people were considering opinions different from their own or that anyone’s decisions were being informed.
Some legislators, it seems, felt similarly, and there had been talk that the delegation would stop conducting the forums because the public comment sessions were being dominated by special interests and attendance by legislators was on the wane. An idea was floated to create an online forum to replace the delegation’s traditional Saturday morning events.
That didn’t end up happening. Instead, the delegation’s chairman, Republican Sen. Michael O’Donnell of Wichita, decided to continue the forums each month through April, but changed the way questions would be asked. People wanting to ask questions were instructed to write their question on a notecard. The questions would be read by O’Donnell, and then any member of the delegation could choose to respond to it.
It was a welcome change, as far as one of the lawmakers who attended, Rep. John Whitmer, a Wichita Republican, was concerned. Compared with forums he conducts in his own in his district, Whitmer said the regional event tended to draw out people with strong opinions unrepresentative of his own constituents.
“Folks who feel disenfranchised or mad, they just want to vent, and the old format was really conducive to that,” Whitmer says. “The drop in attendance showed the delegation was tired of it, so what we tried to do with this … is have more a conversation.”
But the change felt like a step backward to frequent attendees such as Janice Bradley of the Peace & Social Justice Center of South Central Kansas. Bradley felt like it was “lame” that lawmakers would restrict the forum to questions and not allow for direct interaction between lawmakers and the public during the question and answer period.
“I just feel it’s not easy for people to go to Topeka to testify on a bill,” Bradley says. “Of course, they can write. They can call. But to have this face-to-face contact is important. I can agree there needs to be some tweaking to be able to develop or open the exchange of views.”
IMAGINING A DIFFERENT KIND OF MEETING
Now, imagine that you’re sitting in the audience of a special meeting that’s been called to order by your local school board.
The room is full for a Monday evening. Teachers, administrators, patrons, parents and even some students are on hand to see how the board will respond to a difficult situation. Your district is facing a significant shortfall and school officials must reduce spending. They are looking at dozens of ways to do it.
The options aren’t terribly attractive. Sports and arts programs are on the chopping block. Teaching positions could be cut; elementary schools could be closed. There’s even talk of reducing the school week from five days to four.
You’re upset about the situation and how it might affect your children. You plan to speak at the public comment session of the meeting in which members of the general public are given up to three minutes to speak.
But when the school board president calls the meeting to order, something surprising happens. “The board won’t be conducting business in the usual manner tonight” she says. Instead, it will be conducting a study session about the proposed cuts.
“I would like to invite those of you assembled to stay and help us weigh the difficult decisions,” she continues. “We’re asking you to work together to decide what it is our district should cut and what it is we should keep.”
It turns out you’ve stumbled into something that’s more than a school board meeting: it’s an exercise in leadership and civic participation. The packed house is no coincidence – school officials had sought out people weeks in advance so that different parts of the community would be well-represented.
Over the next couple of hours, instead of passively observing a board make decisions for you, you’re actively involved in making them. With the help of a facilitator, you and a small group of 11 others seated around a table weigh the options and their various pro and cons.
You speak up. You listen and sometimes even disagree. But nobody gets angry. And you find that you’re seeing the problem the district faces from a variety of new angles. You came in thinking there was one right solution and left with a realization that the problem is more complicated than you could recognize at first glance.
You leave humbled, but also energized. Some of your table’s ideas received support from the full meeting at the end. And while your decisions weren’t binding in a formal way, school board members ended the meeting by saying they were committed to basing their final decisions on your input. When you check Facebook a couple of weeks later, you see a news story that they lived up to their words. You’re proud of what you were able to contribute and more supportive of the whole package of cuts than you would have been otherwise.
I’ve attended hundreds, if not thousands, of public meetings over the course my life. And I’ve never been to a meeting quite like the one described above. But I sure would like to go to it, if the opportunity presented itself.
What about you? Are the meetings you go to more like the first one or second one? Do you think truly participatory public meetings are possible? What would you be willing to do in the service of changing how meetings are conducted?
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