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Bridging the Disconnect Between the People and Their Governments

Town hall meetings? That system is broken. There are better ways for citizens and public officials to learn from each other and solve problems together.

"Do your job!" It's the rallying cry of Americans who, in seemingly unprecedented numbers, are taking to the streets and filling the seats of civic centers to demand that mayors, legislators and other policymakers hear their concerns and take action on a growing number of pressing issues at home and in Washington, D.C. People increasingly feel left out of the process, and they're angry.

Town hall meetings, of course, are supposed to be for just this kind of give and take, a space for people to come together with their governments to learn more about issues, ask questions and voice opinions. But the system is clearly broken. When town halls do take place, they're too often only a space to argue. They've become a place for outrage rather than one where citizens and elected officials can engage with and learn to trust each other.

It's time to reestablish the balance between citizens and their elected representatives. While expressing anger is important, it's seldom as effective as sharing a great idea. We have in front of us the opportunity to tap into an energy and level of engagement that most us have never seen before. And elected officials at all levels of government would be wise to follow the example of city leaders who are partnering with citizens to find real solutions to real public problems.

These are leaders like South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who is a master of using social media to work with his constituency. When I saw Buttigieg at the last year's CityLab conference in Miami, I asked, "What do you do when people are steaming mad at you?" His advice: Listen, and then ask for help. "When someone is yelling at me," he said, "I let them. And then I say, 'OK, you have a point. Now, how can you help me fix it?'" By listening to people and then soliciting their help, he sparks a cycle of trust that leads to real solutions.

These are also leaders like Albuquerque Mayor Richard J. Berry, who is using surveys and conversations with constituents to create a citizen-led vision for prosperity in the city. As part of this "Plan for Prosperity," Berry met with people from across cultures, neighborhoods and age groups and heard countless stories from people who are carving out success for themselves, their families and their communities. When I spoke with the mayor a couple weeks ago, he described the program as the most powerful learning tool an elected official could hope for, providing an opportunity to hear directly from people about their dreams for the place they call home.

There's a method to this magic. At Cities of Service, a nonprofit supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies among others, we believe that relationships between elected officials and citizens can be built and then strengthened through what we call "impact volunteering," a three-step process of deliberation, collaboration and results.

We see that the most successful leaders work with citizens to identify problems -- just as Mayor Buttigieg does in South Bend. They learn from and partner with citizens to find solutions -- just as Mayor Berry does in Albuquerque. And then they join all other involved parties by bringing resources to the table -- expertise, data, legal authority and a shared passion -- to take action.

This impact volunteering model is what prompted then-New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg to create NYC Service in 2009. He understood that the people of New York share a strong desire to make their city better (it's something the whole world saw after 9/11) and he wanted to tap that energy on an everyday basis to solve some of the city's toughest problems.

NYC Service led to the creation of the Cities of Service coalition in 2010, and impact volunteering became our central engagement strategy. Volunteering is nice, but cities need more than nice. When they combine and focus the efforts of the mayor and residents to solve tangible problems -- whether fighting climate change, cleaning a vacant lot or educating kids -- you get things done and, in doing so, get past the issues that divide you.

This doesn't only work for cities. It's also a tool that can guide leaders in state capitals and Washington when they face angry constituents back home.

People are crying out for a government they can trust. The citizens who are showing up in droves at town hall meetings and demanding to be heard are an encouraging sign that the will of the people is there. It's up to officials at every level of government to listen to -- and work with -- them to solve the challenges in front of us. This isn't a mystery; we know what steps to take. All that is left to do is to begin.

Executive director of Cities of Service
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