Over the last several years, there have been a growing number of civic engagement projects in California from the city through to the state level. Last August, Governor Schwarzenegger plus top legislative leaders participated with over 3,000 Californians in a day-long survey about health care, entitled, "CaliforniaSpeaks on Health Care Reform".  In San Mateo County currently there is a county-wide campaign to involve residents and commuters in a series of dialogues around the subject of affordable housing. The project, called, "Threshold 2008" was originated by a diverse group of county residents – from business people to open space advocates – who saw a possible crisis in the lack of affordable housing in the region.

And that’s not all, large cities from San Diego to San Francisco, and smaller ones like Chula Vista and Morgan Hill, have convened citizens in "community conversations" around policy decisions ranging from airport planning to budget prioritization.   In most of these instances, municipalities and school districts have been pushed to a crisis point, where a budget deficit or immensely expensive (and controversial) land use decision precipitates public involvement.

The long-time city manager from Redwood City, Ed Everett, has seen a change in the way the state’s municipal leaders have made many of these important policy decisions: "Officials are beginning to turn their attention from the outcome of questions to the process by which they’re made. In this they understand that they still have control, but it is applied to the gathering of their citizens and the terms of the debate."

In this effort, Common Sense California, a non-profit, multipartisan organization, is supporting municipalities and school districts that wish to engage their citizens in informed policy making. We are doing this through consulting with cities and the offering of grant money through our 2008 Citizen Engagement Grant Program, which will provide $125,000 of grants to cities throughout California.

To learn more about the civic engagement grants, click here.

Pete Peterson is Executive Director of Common Sense California and lectures on State & Local Governance at the Pepperdine School of Public Policy.