Last year I wrote a pair of blog entries on ways to engage citizens in government (July 2007, October 2007) and another last month on a pilot effort to conduct a national dialogue among citizens. Some academics see broader engagement as one way to create the credibility and legitimacy needed for political officials to make difficult decisions. I think there’s something to this perspective.
This perspective was reflected in the 2008 Democratic Platform as well:
“We are committed to a participatory government. We will use the most current technology available to improve the quality of government decision-making and make government less beholden to special interest groups and lobbyists. We will enhance the flow of information between citizens and government—in both directions—by involving the public in the work of government agencies. We will not simply solicit opinions, but will also use new technology to tap into the vast expertise of the American citizenry, for the benefit of government and our democracy.” (page 54)
A coalition of organizations that advocate greater citizen engagement designed an action agenda for the Obama Administration that addresses the aspirations reflected in the Platform statement. This coalition of nearly 50 organizations including Demos, AmericaSpeaks, and Everyday Democracy, sponsored a conference in late summer to explore these issues and followed up by drafting a set of just-released recommendations in a paper entitled “Strengthening Our Nation’s Democracy:”
Create a White House Office of Civic Engagement. The new Obama Administration should create a White House-level office to serve as a government-wide focal point and provide leadership on a wide array of engagement efforts, such as an interagency network to build agency-level capacity to engage citizens in policy-making.
Convene National Discussions. The new President should signal a new kind of governance by calling on the American people to take part in a series of national discussions, engaging “millions of voices at the table” on issues of high-level concern such as the economy, healthcare, energy, and climate change.
Pursue a Legislative Agenda to Increase Participation. The new President should work with Congress to enhance citizen engagement by amending existing laws that limit participation, providing incentives for agencies to engage citizens, and enhancing electoral reforms.
The Coalition’s recommendations are reinforced by a recent Washington Post article by Michael Fletcher, “Think Tank Urges a Trust in Government Initiative Along with Obama Agenda.” The article summarizes a paper by Elaine Kamarck and Bill Galston who say the new president will need to “pursue an explicit trust strategy” in order to be effective in pursuing his policy initiatives. They say that unless the public trusts the government to do the right thing, the president may “Trust shapes the limits of political possibility,” said Kamarck.
Tags: AmericaSpeaks, Bill Galston, citizen engagement, civic engagement, democracy, democratic platform, Demos, Elaine Kamarck, Everyday Democracy, national dialogue, Washington Post, White House Office of Civic Engagement