How do citizens get involved in their government? Some get involved when something happens to them personally – a zoning change in their neighborhood, a child is hit by a drunk driver, or the passport office doesn’t respond to an application for a new passport. Others are passionate about certain issues – environment, immigration, or terrorism. Some have expertise that can benefit the government – these kind of people volunteer for, or are recruited, to participate in advisory committees or on study commissions.
But the average citizen is oftentimes not engaged beyond what they read or see on the news. Is that good? Can that be changed? What should the next President do? Some observers, such as the Pew Charitable Trust, suggest that civic engagement is not only an important part of democratic citizenship but also integral to citizen trust in the legitimacy of their government, especially among young people.
The traditional “citizen engagement” methods of the federal government have been public hearings, comments on proposed rules, occasional surveys, and periodic grassroots conferences on specific topics. The White House Conference on Aging is one example. The use of advisory committees by individual agencies or programs is another. The Environmental National Advisory Committee is one of more than 1,000 such committees. Each of these methods is governed by laws and rules that often make it harder for people to be engaged. The laws attempt to ensure an “open” and “unburdensome” process, but may have a different effect. For example, the Paperwork Reduction Act attempts to reduce government burdens on citizens in filling out paperwork, but the compliance requirements of this law also have the effect of discouraging agencies to reach out to get citizen opinions. The Federal Advisory Committee Act attempts to ensure balanced views and open forums to discuss public issues, but the bureaucratic pressures are to prevent their creation and to eliminate as many as possible.
Presidential candidates are saying they want to create more opportunities for citizens to be engaged in their government. Democrat John Edwards announced that he wants to create “Citizen Congresses” where: “every two years, he will ask 1 million citizens nationwide to participate in Citizen Congresses combining local town halls with the latest technology to create true national discussions, unfiltered by interest groups. Americans will discuss the challenges and trade-offs facing our country and offer advisory opinions to leaders.”
Barak Obama says he wants to “empower citizens” to help “crack down on government waste” by making government spending information more transparent. Hillary Clinton and John McCain also advocate more transparency in budget and performance information. But do citizens want more than just increased transparency, as Edwards seems to suggest?
Fifteen years ago, former presidential candidate Ross Perot foresaw citizens being more directly involved in their government via technology such as the Internet. Today, the Internet’s increasing pervasiveness is creating and connecting social networks in ways that can allow more citizen involvement. How this will evolve in the next four to eight years under the next President could create exciting new possibilities for the American democratic experience and how government is administered.