Los Angeles is a city of four million people. And it might soon launch a tiny office—of as many as eight people—to help those residents better participate in their government.
And in California, this would be a big advance. Because while governance in our state is as complicated as a Google algorithm, we offer precious little assistance to Californians who seek to engage with it.
In our state, the people who run for office, vote, and participate in other ways (from attending public meetings to protesting) are whiter, richer and better educated than the state population as a whole. And for all their talk of representing a democratic resistance, California’s leaders have been unwilling to take the essential first step to reversing those disparities: providing an infrastructure of support that will work directly with people to boost their civic knowledge and show them how to participate.
Such infrastructure would consist of offices, staff, volunteers and electronic tools to let you know about any decision that might affect you and to help you make your voice heard. The natural place for such infrastructure is at the local level, closest to citizens.
Such infrastructure, however, is almost impossible to find in California localities. Santa Rosa has a small engagement office, and San Francisco has an office that combines civic engagement with immigrant services.
But few other cities bother.
This is a shame. I have traveled the world as co-president of an international forum on direct and participatory democracy, and I’ve been struck by how much more infrastructure there is for participation in Europe, Latin America, and East Asia than here at home.
Cities like Madrid, Seoul and Montevideo devote major resources to helping citizens engage and make real decisions on budgets and policies.
In Mexico City, I recently visited the national election institute, INE, which has 16,000 employees and a long-term strategy for developing civic culture (a project the U.S. has outsourced to Twitter).
Last fall, at a conference in Rome, I helped draft, at the city council’s invitation, a “new Magna Carta for Democracy Cities”, which cities could sign to show their commitment to ever-increasing participation. “A democracy city is a place where citizens—be they the city’s elected officials, staff, or volunteers—are always available to assist people when they seek to participate,” reads the document. Since then, cities from Taiwan to the Czech Republic have signed on, but not a single American city has come on board.
Meanwhile, not a single city in the United States has come on board.
This isn’t a surprise. Americans consider public engagement something that should be done privately, rather than as part of the suite of government services. The only American city with a world-class public participation operation is Minneapolis, where the city’s Neighborhood and Community Relations Department is trying to drive up the participation rate of citizens in local government to 80 percent.
Within California, the best city when it comes to infrastructure for participation is Los Angeles, despite its hard-won reputation for apathy.
L.A.’s leadership is largely based on a decision it made 20 years ago, during a charter revision, to create elected Neighborhood Councils. There are now 99 of these advisory bodies, which advocate for their communities on issues from development to transportation.
The councils can claim successes, like establishing health clinics in Pico Union, but conventional wisdom is that the councils are too weak. So EmpowerLA, the city department that supports the councils, has sought to establish an Office of Civic Engagement to boost participation, both inside and outside the councils. It’s unclear whether the new city budget might fund it.
A report in favor of the idea from Advancement Project California and leading nonprofits including Community Coalition, argues that the office could boost participation from underrepresented groups (especially low-income people, non-whites, and undocumented immigrants), train citizens on how to get more from government officials, and establish “accessibility standards” that city officials would have to follow in public participation. Such standards might include making sure locations and times are convenient for public events, and that language translation, childcare, and food and drink are available.
“The city should be applauded on the start it has made” on civic engagement, says Advancement Project’s John Dobard, “but there is more the city could do to live up to what it says it values.”
The same could be said for other California communities. There is no better time than now for building an infrastructure for engagement. California desperately needs to rebuild its housing stock and change the way it uses energy—major transformations that will require strong public support. And the next two years will bring a new census and redistricting, both public processes that require participation.
But it won’t be easy, especially when it’s such a struggle for California’s biggest city to open a little office.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.