In a typically humorous aside, the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “citizen participation is a device whereby public officials induce non-public individuals to act in a way the public officials desire.” Of course, there are many examples of municipalities and school districts “marketing” their pre-determined positions under the guise of civic involvement, but current events and several recent conversations with local leaders in California reveal that we are moving into a unique period in municipal governance – one in which officials at the city and school district levels around the state are proactively engaging their residents in policy-making. Most of the reasons offered for this change fit into three main themes.
The first is technological. The growth of the internet as both a communications and research tool has completely altered the relationship between our political leaders and citizens. In his best-selling book, Here Comes Everybody, author, Clay Shirky, declares, “We are living in the middle of the largest increase in expressive capability in the history of the human race. More people can communicate more things to more people than has ever been possible in the past.” Through blogs, every citizen has a bullhorn and can broadcast her issues with the local government or school system. Through social network sites like Facebook, MySpace, and others, citizens are organizing more easily than ever before. Through email campaigns, citizens can barrage local officials with hundreds (even thousands) of messages.
These can be tremendous assets for citizens to express their opinions; still, these platforms are hardly transparent and may not be representative. A Los Angeles-area city manager recently confided to me, “I’m getting bombarded with emails and I have no way of knowing whether this is one person sending me multiple messages from many accounts, or if I have a serious problem on my hands.” In a yet unanswered challenge to the Founders, our definition of “factions” is fundamentally changing. Fleeting is the time when the representative nature of an organization could be determined through its membership, and/or by seeing them in assembly.
A second, and particularly Californian reason is our increasing ethnic diversity. As many readers know, with the 2000 Census, California became the first “majority-minority” state, meaning there was not a single ethnicity greater than 50% of our population. Logically, this would heighten the challenge leaders face in communicating with constituents through both language and cultural barriers. This reasoning was borne out in a groundbreaking study released last year by sociologist, and author of Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam. In the report, entitled, “E Pluribus Unum”(http://www.utoronto.ca/ethnicstudies/Putnam.pdf), Putnam’s researchers analyzed the effects of ethnic diversity on civic participation in 41 cities across the United States. In all of the metro areas studied, he found an inverse relationship between ethnic diversity and civic engagement. In fact, three of the four lowest scoring cities in Putnam’s measure of participation were all in California (Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Oakland).
Finally, California’s budget crisis is forcing local leaders to make excruciatingly difficult decisions about what services their cities and school districts will be able to offer in the coming year. In the last few years, we have seen the growth in “participatory budgeting” efforts, as cash-strapped cities like Morgan Hill and Menlo Park have engaged their residents in the budget process during a deficit period. This year we are witnessing many more municipalities attempting to do the same thing. Cities from Brea to Salinas are considering similar projects. No doubt a few of these efforts will be lobbying efforts for higher taxes/fees, but the vast majority are being launched by civic officials who are desperate for the informed opinion of their residents.
How great is the desire on the part of municipalities and school districts to more deeply involve their residents? This past summer, the organization I work with, Common Sense California, conducted the 2008 Citizen Engagement Grant Program, in which we offered financial and consultative support to cities and school districts for legitimate engagement efforts. In about three months, with a tiny promotional budget, we received over 70 submissions (and many more inquiries) from around the state for civic engagement projects on subjects ranging from budgeting to school district visioning.
Civic engagement was once thought to be another attack of the “Goo-Goo’s” – the name given to those in the early 1900’s who fought for more transparent government. The factors enumerated here are pushing many of our state’s leaders to intentionally, and legitimately, engage their residents in the difficult policy decisions before their cities and school districts. Seeking the input of the fully informed citizen has never been more important.