Should the next President actively seek greater citizen involvement in government? AmericaSpeaks, a nonprofit that champions citizen engagement, recently released a report, Designing 21st Century Governance Mechanisms. This report is based on an international conference held last year on ways to increase citizen involvement in governance. It offers five new ways for increasing citizen involvement at the federal level:
1. Allow citizen-initiated legislation, which would involve convening a citizen’s assembly one every two years to identify one issue that Congress must place on its agenda and be accountable to voters.
2. Create an independent, quasi-governmental body that would support legislative and executive branch agencies in their citizen participation efforts, like the former Office of Technology Assessment.
3. Develop measures that assess how well agencies engage in citizen participation activities and tie results to awards to agencies and staff.
4. Develop criteria to assess how well public officials foster effective citizen engagement, that would be used by non-profits and citizen groups.
5. Engage citizens in identifying and monitoring progress toward key national priorities.
While idealistic in approach, some of these themes are appearing in some of the statements by candidates. For example, Hillary Clinton has advocated restoring the Office of Technology Assessment, and Barak Obama has recommended empowering citizens to “crack down on government waste.”
From my perspective, the report’s mechanisms may not be “the answer.” For example, state-level citizen-initiated ballot initiatives have been problematic in some states, sometimes being co-opted by special interest groups. Extending something like that to the national level may face the same challenges, but on the other hand it could certainly have the potential to kick-start a national dialogue on issues such as entitlement reform or health care reform. The effectiveness of some of the other proposed ideas would heavily depend on how they were implemented – for example, who develops measures and criteria, and would they be perceived as truly non-partisan in definition and application?
Which of these ideas bother or excite you?