A How-To Manual for Bringing Citizens' Voices to the Public-Policy Table

It's vital that we begin restoring the public's trust in government. A recently published book amounts to a detailed manual for officials who want to take on that challenge.
by | May 30, 2013

The most fundamental problem in our civic life is the disengagement of citizens from their governments. The vast gulf between ordinary people and the elites who dominate our politics is well documented. Less often explained and articulated is that without restoration of at least a little public trust in government, we cannot manage any of the mounting crises we face. "Bringing Citizen Voices to the Table: a Guide for Public Managers," a recently published book by Carolyn J. Lukensmeyer, is a detailed instruction manual for public officials who understand the importance of this challenge and want to take it on.

Lukensmeyer, executive director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse, is a pioneer in the deliberative-democracy movement who has spent her career working to rebuild the public's ability to govern themselves. She has a doctorate in organizational behavior, ran her own organizational-consulting firm for a dozen years, and served as chief of staff for Ohio Gov. Richard Celeste, as a deputy project manager on Vice President Al Gore's reinventing-government task force, and as a consultant to the White House chief of staff in the Clinton administration.

Until recently, Lukensmeyer was the executive director of AmericaSpeaks, a nonprofit she founded in 1995 whose mission is to reinvigorate democracy by giving citizens an authentic voice in the issues that matter the most to them. AmericaSpeaks' signature tool is what it calls the "21st Century Town Hall Meeting," large events that blend face-to-face interaction with technology-enabled small-group discussions and large-group instant voting on policy choices and preferences. I've been involved as an observer in these events on two occasions--watching a group of about 60 people deliberate on choices to relieve traffic congestion in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area and a group of about 1,300 deliberating on policy and budget priorities for the D.C. city government--and I can vouch for their power.

In her book, Lukensmeyer devotes a chapter to each of seven strategies for bringing citizen voices into governance, explaining why each specific tactic it is important and what will go wrong if it isn't attended to. Using these strategies, Lukensmeyer and her team have tackled some of the wickedest problems in public policy, from how to rebuild Ground Zero after 9/11 to reforming health care in California to rebuilding New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

In New Orleans, for example, more than 4,000 people participated in two "community congresses" that Andy Kopplin, who was then the executive director of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, credits in Lukensmeyer's book with turning the rebuilding efforts around. "There's no doubt that the Unified New Orleans Plan developed by citizens was the foundation for the city's final recovery plan and that it has had a significant, lasting impact on governance ever since," says Kopplin, who now is the city's chief administrative officer and a deputy mayor.

In closing her book, Lukensmeyer writes, "What we are missing is the will--both public and political--to remake our democratic institutions with the voices of the people." Here I think she is wrong. Across the country, there are many, many governors, county executives, mayors and city managers who have the will but lack the methods.

Some of them are going to pick up her book and apply the strategies she outlines, and they are going to be successful, both in terms of solving problems people care about and in advancing their own political and public-management agendas. Other leaders are going to see those successes and want to emulate them. And the movement to bring citizen voices to the table is going to grow.

Mark Funkhouser  |  Director, GOVERNING Institute
mfunkhouser@governing.com  | 

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