Can Citizen Governance Save Our Republic?

Some governments are moving to give citizens more of a direct role in policymaking. It's a promising experiment.
August 11, 2016
By James P. Toscano  |  Contributor
Vice president for public affairs and communications at Tidewater Community College

Few would dispute that the U.S. electorate is suffering a crisis of confidence in government. Most Americans harbor negative perceptions of both major-party presidential candidates. Nor is their scorn confined to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Congress's job-approval rating has sunk to below 13 percent, according to Real Clear Politics' averaging of several recent polls.

Meanwhile, solutions to some of our most vexing issues remain elusive despite near-unanimity among the electorate. Take gun control: Polls show that Americans broadly support background checks at gun shows and in private sales, laws to prevent the mentally ill from buying guns, and a federal database to track gun sales. Yet for the most part, legislative proposals along these lines have gone nowhere. While Americans can find common ground on many issues, any legislative consensus seems further away than ever. Too often we are told that a proposal is "dead on arrival," and the parties only deepen their divide by savaging each other in the media.

So at a time when there seems to be more agreement among the electorate than among their elected officials, it's worth asking whether citizens themselves could do a better job -- whether they could restore confidence in public governance. Is it time to give more authority to citizens to make policy? In fact, some states and local governments are already moving to cede more authority to their citizens.

In Virginia, for example, the General Assembly intervened in a regional governance failure in 2011 when lawmakers installed citizens as policymakers alongside elected representation on the Transportation District Commission of Hampton Roads, the board of the regional transit provider in the Norfolk-Virginia Beach metro area. I was among the first appointees, and in 2015 was the first citizen appointee to be elected board chair.

In a statewide initiative, the Virginia legislature also sought citizen expertise to shore up the effectiveness and accountability of economic-development funding. Created this year, GO Virginia will have a board largely composed of citizens with private business experience who will have grant-making authority for regional economic-development priorities.

Other states have taken their own steps to amplify citizen voices and drown out special interests. In 2011, the Oregon legislature established a Citizens Initiative Review Commission that convenes panels of 18 to 24 randomly selected citizens who, along with experts, collaboratively evaluate the facts and ramifications of pending ballot questions. The panelists create "Citizen Statements" both in support of and in opposition to a ballot measure to help voters see through the spin of political advertising.

Plenty is going on at the local level as well. According to Public Agenda, a nonprofit that advocates for public participation in government, 70,000 Americans and Canadians in 22 cities voted last year on how to spend nearly $50 million through participatory budgeting.

Political scientist Hélène Landemore of Yale University applauds such examples of citizen-empowered democracy but cautions against only "reforming the system at the margin rather than restoring true power to citizens." She argues that more drastic reforms are required to bring about a truly responsive democracy.

The environment is ripe, according to Landemore and a growing cadre of scholars, because the availability of social-science datasets and pervasive digital technology makes governing failures more apparent. Landemore sees an evolution toward a "post-representative democracy" where elections play a smaller role, ordinary citizens have more influence, and policy decisions, as a result, more closely reflect citizen preference.

She isn't completely sold on appointments, such as those in Virginia, because even appointees still have to self-select. Instead, she advocates instead random selection of citizens by lottery -- just like jury panels -- for policymaking roles and rotation of power.

Citizen-centric reforms at the state and local level give hope to those who would cheer the prospect of a post-representative democracy at the national level. As participants and observers of the Oregon experience have found, forcing divergent and representative perspectives to the same table for an informed conversation remains a powerful recipe.

On the Norfolk-Virginia Beach transit board, politics was blamed for the agency's unwillingness for over a decade to increase fares despite mounting budget deficits. With citizens at the table, our board considered multiple proposals, some with a more severe impact on riders, and in 2014 we settled unanimously on a fare structure that set the agency on a more stable financial course while earning public praise from transit-rider advocates.

What kind of promise does that hold for the most toxic of debates, such as that surrounding the plague of gun deaths? Here's what I know: Citizens, who need not worry about a primary challenge from the fringe or being maligned by a well-funded super PAC, and who benefit very little from trying to pack a complex position into 140 characters, have shown that they can find common ground on some difficult issues to arrive at a workable policy solution in a way that no elective body could. With faith in our democracy being what it is, greater citizen governance is a movement whose time has come.