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Strengthening Civic Participation and Public Engagement

Tom Lynch delivers a Baha'i prayer before the start of a town board meeting at the Greece Town Hall in Greece, New York August 20, 2013

On October 23, Governance Studies at Brookings hosted a forum on reimagining the legal and technological frameworks to strengthen and boost civic participation and citizen engagement.

Darrell West, VP and director of Governance Studies and the director of the Center for Technology Innovation, opened the session by noting that "Many of our laws today pre-date the Internet era, and so it sometimes has been hard to get people engaged [and] sometimes there are legal barriers to public engagement." He noted that the Working Group on Legal Frameworks for Public Participation has produced new tools "designed to create a more supportive and productive environment for public participation."

Definition of "Public Participation" from a model ordinance for public participation

Excerpt from a Draft Municipal Public Participation Ordinance, definition of public participation

Members of an expert panel described the overarching problem as the lack of guiding principles to govern civic engagement. Lisa Amsler, professor of public service at Indiana University, said that the "default" level of public participation is outdated and does not function. "The problem is that the default public participation model is 3 minutes at a microphone." People fall asleep at the podium, they do not have enough time to talk or they are restricted to discussion within the scope of the agenda. There is no interaction with anyone in the room. This structure does not allow for full participation by the public and ignores new technology as a further means of enabling public participation.

Moderator Matt Leighninger, executive director of The Deliberative Democracy Consortium, reinforced Amsler’s argument, pointing out that "There has been for a long time, among those of us who do public participation work, this general sense that the laws on public participation were occasionally a hindrance and almost never a help."

Mike Huggins, a former city manager, spoke from local government's perspective. According to Huggins, the outdated legislation and negative experiences with previous public participation creates inertia if not pushback from local officials. Leighninger corroborated this, saying that it is not an intellectual problem for public officials, but it is an emotional issue. He mentioned the substantial pushback from local governments that, in general, have had negative experiences with public participation.

Huggins also spoke about the negative civic trends that the current public participation framework has elicited: "People learn what it means to be an active citizen … or they don't, I would argue, in the context of what they do in their local communities." A local community that does not have a framework for good public participation or incentives to participate will create a tradition of non-participation and therefore less effective and less innovative government.

Kevin Curry, Program Director for the Code for America Brigade, spoke about independent "City Camps" that attempt to innovate for municipal governments in the absence of government organized political participation.

The main remedy the panelists proposed was the Model Municipal Public Participation Ordinance. Prof. Amsler said it would be a starting point to set the ground for whoever wants to innovate. The way public participation is defined in the ordinance allows for increased freedom of discussion and innovation. She also advocated for local government offices to appoint an individual to learn about public engagement, pass on that knowledge, and bridge the gap between the local government and the people in regards to public participation.

Leighninger described the situation created by the ordinance as "a model which … does not require public participation in any particular format but enables and supports what we hope will be better public participation."

Huggins also supported the ordinance because it would create a positive definition of public participation as a public good. He saw it as an important way to foster more communication between the government and the public. To Huggins, the ordinance would build a capacity for local elected officials to have support from the community through discussion and innovation. Huggins advocated for a reconstruction of what a citizen's role should be in government.

Finally, Curry presented his own City Camps and the Code for America Brigade as starting points for citizens who wish to participate with innovation and discussions.

Possible actions to strengthen public participation also included ordinances at the executive level in states, which create incentives for the public to engage in discussions and using modern technology to link individuals who participate in more traditional ways with those who use modern technology.

Event audio is available.

Colleen Lineweaver contributed to this post.

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