Monday, June 18, 2007

Are Legislators Finally Getting It About Working With Citizens?

A friend of who lives in a mid-sized town in Massachusetts was concerned that the sidewalks in her neighborhood were becoming so full of potholes that her kids couldn’t ride their bikes on them anymore. With a group of equally concerned neighbors, she marched down to City Hall to meet with her City Council member. “We want to help you do something about this situation,” she said to the member. The member kindly thanked her for her offer and said: “But that’s our job. Why are you here?”...

A true story that’s hardly unique. It underscores that even when there are citizens willing to step up and “get engaged,” they may meet with downright hostility when they try to access legislators who seem to have forgotten that they’re supposed to be listening to and working with a public they’ve sworn to serve.

So says Matt Leighninger in his new book, The Next Form of Democracy: How Expert Rule is Giving Way to Shared Governance…and Why Politics Will Never Be the Same.

According to Leighninger, legislators may finally be getting it that they aren’t going to have much success if they continue to ignore citizens’ desire to help solve problems that are increasingly difficult to solve without some new and fresh ideas. And who better than to provide these ideas than the real people who face these issues everyday? In short, legislators, especially at the local level, are realizing that to be successful, they not only need public buy-in, they need public weigh -in.

That realization is the result of a convergence of two trends. The first is citizens’ frustration with their legislatures. The second is legislators’ frustration with the constant bashing many of them get from citizens, as well as a lack of public trust overall in what they do or say.

The auspicious outcome is that some legislators are now going beyond seeing citizens as mere constituents or asking them for “input” about legislative decisions. Instead, they’re working in partnership with citizens to craft and pass legislation and policies that respond to what people say they need. And both citizens and legislators are doing it through public deliberation—civic spaces that convene cross-sections of communities to talk, hear different ideas, explore options, make decisions, and take action on issues that will benefit the common good.

This isn’t some Kum-bay-yah picnic party. It’s real democracy at work and Leighninger provides a surfeit of examples of it in the book.

Take Eugene, Oregon, where City Council members confronted with an $8 million budget shortfall sent “budget worksheets” to every household in the city to get peoples’ input as to how they should allocate funds. Residents brought the worksheets to community workshops and told the city what they would do and why. The city took that information and developed three options that they presented to residents for another set of deliberations. The result was a brand new citizen-crafted new budget that emerged from a process that was so successful, it’s being considered for replication in the state capital.

Do you have others? Post them here.

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