Ground-Level Engagement

Tax season is a good time to examine how citizens interact with government.
April 2010
Paul W. Taylor
By Paul W. Taylor  |  Editor
Paul W. Taylor is the editor of Governing, Chief Content Officer for e.Republic, Inc. and senior advisor to the Center for Digital Government.

The 1040 is simultaneously the most ubiquitous and reviled government form in the United States. Since its introduction in 1913, the form has been at the heart of the country's voluntary tax system, which allows taxpayers to take a first shot at calculating the correct amount of tax and completing the returns, rather than having the government fill out both forms for them from the outset. Voluntary does not apply to the legal obligation to pay tax or file a return, a popular if incorrect tenet of many illegal tax-evasion schemes.

The temptation to evade or avoid taxes has a financial dimension-taxpayers deciding they can't pay what they don't have. But it is more than dollars and cents. The value of the government and its programs reflects what taxpayers identify with or are alienated from. Tax filing compliance is a blunt instrument for measuring the taxpayer mood, so it is helpful to use the prism of three similar-sounding approaches--citizen initiative, citizen engagement and community attachment--to gauge the spirit of our times at ground level in communities across the country.

In its many variations (including referenda, propositions and ballot measures), the citizen initiative is a common form of direct democracy in local government and is also used by 24 states and the District of Columbia. The initiative can force a vote or oblige governing bodies to confront a particular issue. On one hand, the initiative is used to authorize and fund specific public projects. On the other, it's used to prescribe restraints on government's taxing or place a cap on spending.

Many communities have seen multiple measures on a single ballot that succeed despite pulling in opposite directions. In spite of its progressive roots, the citizen initiative has become a creature in large measure of what has been a permanent tax revolt over the last couple decades.

Citizen engagement is also reform-minded, but has manifested itself in softer, less adversarial ways. The work is often harder and messier than the initiative process and the goal is loftier and harder to measure--(re)establishing trust between the governed and their government. The nonpartisan AmericaSpeaks helpfully defines engagement as a way "citizens and elected officials come together around tough public issues."

When it works, engagement transcends the conventional public hearing model, which is characterized by a one-way information exchange between experts and a self-styled group of usual suspects. It can become a deliberate forum in which a wider cross section of people, who will have to live with the policy decision actively, process information together.

Add to the mix an emerging model of community attachment that seeks to shape public policy from the neighborhood up. Attachment seeks to take everything of value from the engagement model, while capturing the sentiments that drive initiatives before they become codified as a ballot measure. It combines classic economic and social indicators with original research on the level of attachment people have to their communities. In recently released work for the Center for the Future of Arizona, the Gallup Organization adapted disciplines of measuring customer loyalty and satisfaction, and added indicators of community pride and passion, to create an empirical measure of attachment.

The result is The Arizona We Want, a unique think tank that describes a research-driven citizens' agenda of priorities, including education, employment, energy, health care and infrastructure. It also places a high value on the quality of civic leadership and involvement, from voting to volunteering. Using longitudinal data, it found that communities with higher levels of citizen attachment enjoy higher levels of economic growth than their less attached neighbors. Moreover, the results connect what people want with what they're willing to pay, an indicator worth fine gold as elected officials make their next otherwise lonely decisions.