In 2003, about 15 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I was seated next to a 20-something Estonian parliamentarian at a dinner in Kiel, Germany. This Estonian leader, with 15 years of democracy under his belt, remained surprisingly inquisitive about governing stories from the United States, which at that time was still considered one of the world’s great democracies.
Given that I had served as a chief of staff to both a U.S. congressperson and Minnesota’s unconventional, but democratic-populist Governor, Jesse Ventura, the Estonian parliamentarian used the bulk of the dinner conversation to get tips on what he characterized as “the messiness of democracy.”
After many questions, he paused, took a deep breath and then announced, “Okay, I get the part where everyone goes to the polls, and we’re supposed to abide by the majority vote. And I understand that we are then obliged to represent the collective point-of-view of the majority’s mandate…but I still don’t understand why I, as an elected official, need to continue to meet and talk with the residents of my district for the next four years.” As we witness mobs now packing congressional town hall meetings across the U.S., I would imagine there are Members of Congress asking the exact same thing.
Public engagement, however, has been a hallmark of American democracy. It’s one area of our civic life in which more really is seen as better. The more involved the resident, the higher the voter turnout, the more educated the citizen—presumably the better our overall governing results.
Although the strength of community engagement continues to be far from perfect, and the caliber of resident involvement is wildly uneven across this great land, it remains unarguably a part of our democratic ethos that citizens are government and therefore deserve to be at the center of governing. It’s the “We the people…” argument. In fact, there is even a newish component of community engagement called “human-centered design” (not to be confused, of course, with android-centered design).
The real value of governing with a human-centered consciousness is the extra reach it suggests to populations that have been historically under-represented or marginalized. It is often correct and true that “the world belongs to those who show up,” as the saying goes. But this sentiment doesn’t absolve elected officials of the responsibility of doing extra work to reach those who don’t call or show up at the town hall meeting. This is especially true considering the technological tools that now allow representatives to hear from every resident in every corner of the country.
Living Cities has recently concluded a two-year, multi-city effort to test and develop such tools for engaging “hard-to-engage” or previously unengaged residents. In New Orleans, efforts were focused on low-income residents who now had health insurance (as a result of the Affordable Care Act) but who weren’t accessing medical care yet. In Albuquerque, engagement meant doing deep-dive conversations with entrepreneurs of color who often spoke languages other than English. In Baltimore, it involved working with local residents coming out of jail or prison and asking how support services could be more useful to them. The caliber and correctness of what government undertakes benefits from engaging with those it’s intended to serve, and doing so directly.
See the results from these cities and more at http://livingcities.org/resources/accelerating-public-engagement-a-roadmap-for-local-government/.
America uses a system of representative democracy, not direct democracy, which requires that our elected officials interpret the will of the people and then act accordingly. Both are necessary. The will of the people is a living, breathing phenomenon, demonstrated initially by an electoral vote. But again, that’s just the beginning. The engagement of citizens—and the dialogue with representatives that follows—is the deliciously messy part of governing that ultimately determines the caliber of the collective good that gets done.
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