How Citizens Can Have a Genuine Voice in Policymaking

There's a lot that our governments could do beyond giving people three minutes at a public-hearing podium.
February 1, 2016
By Larry Schooler  |  Contributor
A public-engagement consultant and researcher

"This is America. We want to make it easier for people to participate." So said President Obama in his final State of the Union address. Beyond the partisan divides around some of the president's policy proposals lies a compelling thought: Regardless of the policy outcome, give ordinary people genuine, effective access to the process. That is an achievable goal -- as demonstrated by the many local governments that have taken positive steps to make it so.

For too long, government has made unrealistic demands of citizens when it comes to their participation in the process. The only choice many citizens have had was to speak for no more than three minutes at a podium -- often on live television, after hours of waiting, minutes before a vote. At one city council meeting in Texas, a speaker at a public hearing asked, in a nearly empty chamber at 11 o'clock at night, "Will there be an opportunity to weigh in on this issue? "I believe you're doing so now," replied the mayor. "With any power?" she asked, to applause from fellow citizens.

At work, we don't limit input to those who can make a speech right before we make a decision, and we shouldn't impose that limit on the American people either; that helps "the most extreme voices get all the attention," as Obama put it. What do we expect when we ask citizens to sit as they would in church, court or a college lecture, listening to elected officials opine from a dais on high? Only the bravest would openly and brazenly challenge a pastor, a judge or a professor in those settings.

The changes in attitude the president describes may be hard for government to achieve, but that doesn't prevent changes in the process that would help produce rational, constructive debates, enabling us to listen to more than those who agree with us and to give the average person more of a say. We should strive to ensure, above all, that those affected by a public-policy decision can affect that decision.

That's not the case now in much of our country, but there is much that could be done. In 2013, a multi-organizational coalition that included the American Bar Association, the National League of Cities and the International City/County Management Association produced a set of tools called "Making Public Participation Legal." It seeks to replace archaic regulations that drive governments to allow public participation only through scripted, frustrating public hearings rather than by facilitating genuine dialogue. Several other organizations, including the International Association for Public Participation, provide templates for improving the public-participation process.

Some cities have taken these ideas to heart, either replacing or complementing hearings with conversations. Neutral facilitators help smaller groups of citizens with differing points of view talk to each other respectfully, with discussion guidelines that encourage people to respect points of view other than one's own, to focus on understanding rather than persuasion, and to suspend judgment. Moderators even manage to get thousands of people into online civil-dialogue forums.

Some communities go so far as to empower ordinary citizens to host dialogues. In Portsmouth, N.H., for example, citizen hosts from Portsmouth Listens have held small conversations in people's homes and resolved major political conflicts through constructive and structured dialogue. A similar program called Conversation Corps has taken hold in Austin, Texas. Many cities have empowered teams of citizen volunteers to facilitate policy discussions at cafés, schools and houses of worship. And more and more cities have community engagement coordinators, offices of neighborhood engagement and the like.

Ultimately, this shift can yield more than just warmer feelings among Americans. Governments often spend millions dealing with the consequences of poor public participation -- holding off-cycle recall elections, defending against lawsuits filed by aggrieved policy opponents, or even policing protestors. In an age when we are trying to focus on preventive, ongoing health care rather than the much more expensive emergency room, shouldn't we do the same for our politics?

Perhaps when Americans demand that their elected officials, from Congress to city council, give them chances to converse rather than contend, we will achieve the president's vision. Our civic health is ailing; most Americans don't vote, let alone stay active in public life away from the ballot box, and many young adults are not leaving home with a firm understanding of civics or with the tools needed to engage in meaningful civic dialogue. The cure is well within our reach.