A Turning Point for the Public Engagement Field?

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Sandy Heierbacher

We live in exciting, challenging and, in many ways, unprecedented times for governance in the U.S. With massive public budget cuts, political polarization, and historically low levels trust in government intersecting with high unemployment, shifting demographics, and looming climate challenges, substantively involving the public in governance has rarely ever been more difficult or more necessary.

PetePetersonBut recent developments in California have sparked conversation here at NCDD about how the convergence of these circumstances may be creating a perfect storm in which the use of dialogue, deliberation, and pubic engagement can be catapulted to levels of reach and effectiveness that we have yet to see. So we want to invite you to reflect with us on the significance that this moment might have for our work, and the opportunities it presents to reshape how citizens and government interact.

Our reflection began with a recent article penned by our friend, Republican Pete Peterson, head of the Davenport Institute (an NCDD organizational member), who contends that the problem with government is not whether it is too big or too small, as is the common framing in political debate. Instead, he suggests that the issue is actually that, for many very good reasons, citizens no longer feel they can trust the government to do the right thing.

This lack of trust complicates other social and political realities, and feeds a downward spiral of relations between publics and their governments. But Peterson believes that this situation hides a golden opportunity to begin boldly experimenting with new ways that public officials can put governance and decision-making power back into the hands of the public at large — that if everyday citizens can’t trust the government to address public problems in effective ways, maybe they can trust themselves and their communities.

As practitioners and scholars of our field know, some of the most creative and effective solutions to public problems come from the utilization of the tools of public engagement. But we also know that one of the greatest barriers to expanding those tools is the inertia of the status quo in public engagement, and that in many ways, we need a breakthrough that would elevate and normalize the kinds of citizen participation that we know works.

No one knows what that breakthrough will look like, but as Fox & Hounds writer Joe Mathews recently wrote, it might look like an experienced public engagement professional being elected to public office and using the position to expand the government’s official adoption and expansion of quality public engagement processes. And with the recent announcement that Pete Peterson will be running for California’s Secretary of State in the next election, just such a breakthrough for public engagement may be more within reach than ever. (We announced it here on the blog on April 23rd.)

Mathews points out that “the Secretary of State’s office [is] the natural headquarters for remaking governance in California around models of legitimate civic engagement.” And in the wake of the drastic budget cuts that have seen California government shrink in past years, the state is in a unique position to experiment with innovative forms of public engagement and participatory governance. If those experiments go well — if Californians are empowered to have more say so in their own communities and rebuild some of their eroded faith in government — it could prompt local and state governments all over the country to begin running their own experiments in public engagement, which could eventually lead to a long-term shift in the way that governments engage with publics in the US.

This is what we mean by “a perfect storm” for the expansion of our field. If just one influential state in the country could start demonstrating that government can be made more accountable, transparent, effective, and efficient by scaling up deliberative and participatory public engagement models, today’s political, economic, and social climate could prove to be fertile ground for that up-scaling to spread like wildfire. We won’t speculate as to exactly what that would look like or what kind of results it would have, but we think that everyday people becoming empowered to play a bigger role in defining their communities’ priorities and decision-making can hardly be a bad thing.

An upsurge in robust public engagement could also have an impact on the left-right polarization our country is experiencing. Peterson is running as a Republican, and as his article highlights, there is a great deal that conservatives should ostensibly be able to identify with and get behind when it comes to real public engagement, and he calls for conservatives to rally behind the cause. It will be telling to watch how Peterson’s candidacy is received by a state and a field that has more than its fair share of progressives.

Still, we have to remember that Peterson’s run for Secretary of State is in no way a sure thing or a quick fix for the ills of the state or the country. Indeed there are risks involved in his candidacy — the public and civic engagement movement could actually be damaged if Peterson, if elected makes mistakes or fails to implement the kinds of changes he sets out to make, and there is no telling whether California’s current situation will truly be improved by more participatory avenues for governance. But Peterson’s announcement statement suggests that his campaign is about real engagement and transforming how the state is governed, and it seems like a serious. So while there are no guarantees, we note that the potential for a significant shift is there, and that means we’ll be keeping an eye on next year’s elections in California.

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Henry Brown

Best of Luck!

IMO nobody who has a “political tag” will be able to do much to change the lack of trust in government….

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