Good government isn’t just about having lower error rates in welfare payments, or delivering the mail on time. It also has a strong element of citizen trust, and a healthy democracy. Typically, this isn’t the fodder for a presidential political campaign. But surprisingly, others seem to think otherwise.
A special issue of TIME magazine, in conjunction with CNN, focuses on the role of national public service in a cover story entitled “A Time to Serve.” Journalist Richard Stengel, in TIME’s August 30th issue, writes that while “confidence in democracy and our government is near an all-time low, volunteerism and civic participation since the ‘70s are near all-time highs.” He says young people are think government is broken but that they can personally make a difference through community service. However, he concludes “That is not a recipe for keeping a republic.” He also cites a recent study by Harvard professor Robert Putnam that shows that “the more diverse a community is, the less people care about and engage with that community. Diversity, in fact, seems to breed distrust and disengagement.” And since it is projected that the U.S. will be a majority non-white nation in about 40 years, Stengel sees this as a bipartisan challenge to act now to actively engage citizens in civic life. Stengel proposes a 10-point plan:
1. Create a national-service baby bond. The federal government would invest $5,000 for every new-born for higher education, accessible by the young adult under the condition that he or she commit to one year of national or military service.
2. Make national service a cabinet-level department. He thinks the Corporation for National and Community Service isn’t symbolically prominent enough.
3. Expand existing national-service programs like Americorps and the National Senior Volunteer Corps, and create four new volunteer corps:
4. Create an education corps.
5. Institute a summer of service for teens between middle school and high school as a “rite of passage.”
6. Build a health corps to assist eligible, but non-participating low-income families access available public insurance programs and serve in other non-medical support staff roles.
7. Launch a “green” corps to serve as a modern-day “Civilian Conservation Corps.”
8. Recruite a rapid-response reserve corps to respond quickly to disasters and emergencies under the guidance of FEMA.
9. Start a national-service academy that would serve as a public sector version of West Point to provide an education to those willing to commit to a public service career, and “thereby create a new generation of civic leaders.”
10. Create a baby-boomer education bond , allowing retired baby-boomer volunteers to designate a scholarship of $1,000 for every 500 hours of community service they complete, to be deposited into the savings account of a student they designate.
While some of these proposals are costly – the baby bond proposal would cost $20 billion a year – Stengel believes the long-term benefits would outweigh the costs. In any case, these are proposals that could reshape how government works since it implies a significantly greater citizen involvement in defining and delivering public (if not governmental) services. These proposals also add a new dimension to the “good government” agenda.