Archives for the month of: December, 2008

Yesterday I wrote about misgivings I have in connecting civic engagement too closely with the formal workings of government.

My main concern is that citizen-generated activity could tend to be stifled and bureaucratized by creating some kind of “office of civic engagement” or an “engagement czar” (this is akin to President Bush’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives). However, with the right kind of leadership, and support at the highest levels, such an office could have a hugely beneficial effect on the quality of our public life. In the end, I support such a move.

But there are other dangers, too. These have to do with politics (as opposed to government). The main problem here is that politics doesn’t know what to make of civic engagement.

This is a big problem for those of us who labor in this field — how do we let elected officials and other policy makers know about the results of public dialogue? How can we suggest it best be integrated into governance? No one has yet answered this question, from my observations.

(I wrote a report for the National Issues Forums Institute describing the efforts of one member of Congress to use citizen engagement as a way of gaining community knowledge.)

The Obama-Biden transition office is in the midst of a series of “community meetings” on health care reform. Seeing how these play out and how they are reported on is illuminating.

News coverage has chiefly used two frames. One frame is the “listening session” frame, in which the meetings are portrayed as an informal chance for HHS Secretary-designate Tom Daschle to gain first-hand knowledge of people’s concerns with health care. The other frame is the “political ammunition” frame, in which this effort represents the opening moves in an effort to build a grassroots, mobilizeable base on which to rely when the health care reform fight begins to get ugly. Politico’s coverage today is a good example.

Each of these frames is patently politics-as-usual: Citizens are either being asked to give testimony in a hearing, or they are being whipped into a frenzy so they can be mobilized.

Certainly, the former perception is preferable to the latter. But the default position for political journalists is skepticism — it’s easy for this effort to come off as just a campaign salvo.

Even so, there’s another area where the effort can fall short, and that’s in the organizing. It is, after all, a political office that is responisble for planning and administering these community meetings. Politics is fast-moving and in its day-to-day workings it relies heavily on doing what’s beeen shown to work in the past. And so, for all its talk of being a “different” way to engage citizens on the health care debate, when you look at the community meeting discussion guide, it looks very much like a meeting designed to elicit sound bites and quotes. (To be fair, this is the participant guide; I have not been able to find a way to access the moedrator’s guide. If someone has a copy, please let me know.)

One of the great strengths of community dialogues when it comes to policy-making is that they provide a forum in which citizens can wrestle with the trade offs and downsides of various plans and approaches. But people typically need to be pushed to have such conversations. This is only natural — but when the reluctance is overcome, dramatic new insights can arise.

For civic engagement to be “used” most effectively, it needs to be organized in a way that recognizes its value. In order for that to happen, existing mindsets — those of journalists and those of political staffers — will need to be overcome. This is a tall order, but it is doable.

One way to help is for the “civic participation” community to continue to be as involved and engaged with the Obama-Biden transition office as it has been.

In that respect, the Agenda for Strengtheining America’s Democracy is a great step.

Many friends and colleagues have worked hard on something called the Agenda For Strengthening America’s Democracy. Put simply, this is an effort by an broad array of people in the “civic participation” field to lay out a set of principles that could guide the Obama administration moving forward. They see this as a reasonable thing to do because President-Elect Obama has been a proponent of civic engagement. Indeed, his transition office is already implementing plans for large-scale dialogue about health care reform.

A network of people who are a part of the civic participation field has developed a set of talking points about this, which reads in part:

“Public engagement” or “citizen engagement” is more than just getting people to vote and to volunteer in their communities. Government must also engage citizens in the policy decisions that affect their lives.

Our nation is at a unique point in its history. We face great, unprecedented challenges, but we also have remarkable opportunities for change. Now is the time to come together to advance the ideals that we all share.

There are many meaningful and exciting ways the new administration can build on the citizen engagement it began in the election campaign and carry it into governance.

A new civic engagement agenda signals a new way of governing.

I agree completely — yet I am torn. On the one hand, I am a strong believer in the wisdom of citizens when it comes to difficult policy issues, and I equally strongly believe that political leaders ought to develop mechanisms for listening to this wisdom.

However, I have equally strong misgivings about the formalization of “civic engagement” mechanisms within government. To the extent that civic engagement efforts are mandated and (worse) bureaucratized — I worry that they work against the very spirit of citizen participation.

The Agenda has three main thrusts. It calls for the creation of a White House-level “Office of Civic Engagement,” for the government to institute “large scale dialogue” efforts, and for legislative changes to make voting easier and implement a grab-bag of electoral reforms that have been kicking around for some time (instant runoff voting, proportional representation, etc.).

But, to my mind, civic participation’s power lies in its extra-governmental (and even extra-institutional) status. Small groups of citizens working together to solve problems is far different from organized “discussion groups” whose objective is to generate “input” for “policy makers.”

Still, according to the talking points:

A healthy democracy needs the capacity to involve its citizens in key decisions. Government cannot be left to leaders, experts, and pundits with the public only weighing in on election day. People from all walks of life should be encouraged to wrestle with tough questions, seek common ground, and develop and articulate their views. Policymakers should see themselves as part of this larger process, not as a world unto themselves.

I agree with that, too.

And so I am left wondering what to do. I support my friends on the broad aims, but I differ on some of the key strategies.

One friend whom I wrote asking how he might respond to this struggle said he shared my misgivings about turning participation into an institution, yet says that, “At the same time, I think we have to try. We face too many monumental challenges to not try everything we can to engage as many people as possible in the hard work we face.”

My friend makes a very good point. What will engage the greatest number of people, in substantive ways, without ultimately driving them away? That’s the question I am wrestling with.

I laughed out loud when I read that, last Monday, The New York Times (which may be the most overvalued brand out there in news — but that’s another post) had egg on its face when it admitted that it had published a fake letter to the editor.

A big boo-boo in the newspaper world, but it gets worse: the letter purported to be from the mayor of Paris and it criticized the Empire State’s possible next Senator, Caroline Kennedy. AP reports:

“What title has Ms. Kennedy to pretend to Hillary Clinton’s seat?” the letter in Monday’s editions said. “We French can only see a dynastic move of the vanishing Kennedy clan in the very country of the Bill of Rights. It is both surprising and appalling.”

Seems that the letter had been emailed to the paper and an editor had replied to the author with some queries — but had not heard back. Rather than calling Paris, the paper ran the letter.

The Gray Lady has rightly apologized and says it is reviewing procedures to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

It’s a refrain we’ve heard before. In cases where it is clear that someone simply bungled their job, often there is a call for a “review” of “systems” and “procedures,” as if the fault must be that no one had thought to set up the right rules ahead of time. But, no, like many such public mistakes, the problem lies with someone’s poor performance.

A new system won’t fix the problem — better employees (and possibly better management) will.

The other day I got a letter from my daughter’s school describing a dilemma that the headmaster had faced, one that his counterparts in many other schools faced too: Whether to close up shop on the day Senator Barack Obama takes office as president of the United States. The school has not in the past taken the day off.

The letter described a number of rationales for doing so this time, all couched in a bunch of “learning about political responsibility” language. Shortly after the letter from my daughter’s school, I got word that the local public school system (along with others in the greater DC area) will be shuttered that day.

These schools all say that, from now on, Inauguration Day will be a holiday.

It’s obvious that these schools and school systems are making this move because they are pleased with the choice America has made. There is no way that, had Sen. McCain been the victor, any school would be pondering a day off. This is one in a series of examples of schools and educators applying their political biases to their pupils, while professing neutrality. In order to maintain the charade, the schools must turn a one-time event (Obama’s ascension) into a policy (every Inauguration Day is a holiday). [UPDATE: See comments below; there is more nuance to this that emerges.]

The beauty of experiment in self-rule we call the United States is that there is a mechanism in place for power to change hands without bloodshed, without coup, without drama. If anything, Inauguration Day is remarkable because it is so unremarkable. Yes, this is an historic rise of an African American to a the highest elected office in the land. But to institute a holiday across the board based on it is wrong headed. While we may be excited about one particular office holder, we may be just as alarmed by the next – the point should be, instead, that daily life goes on. We go to work or school just as before.

Instead, we are treated to a day off because our guy won.

My posts have been getting longer and longer.

Must. Stop.

Why? Because people want things in bites! Half the time, my ideas are only worth a bite anyway. More to the point, blogging traffics in speed, snark, and brevity. I can do two out of three (I’m not into snark).

So I need to get shorter. I thought, as I started this, that the amount of time I was allowing myself to do each post would push me to write briefly. But I am finding what (I believe) E.B. White said, which is that it is easier to write long than short. If he didn’t say that, then it was someone as cool as him.

I am going to have to try to focus in a little more.

And keep it brief.