I’m continuing to work on a new Tools book focused on how to do more effective public engagement, and I’m posting chapters here for your feedback. I’m a little frustrated with this one and the fact that I came up with a lot fewer facts about public engagement than I thought I could. So if you know of something I should be including here, please let me know!
Chapter 2: The Roots of the Problem
We know pretty definitively that people are not participating in local government decision-making, of any type, at anywhere near the levels that professionals and pundits would prefer. Take a quick scan of two recent studies and findings:
- In a survey done by the National Research Center for Governing magazine, 76% of respondents said that they had attended no public meetings in the past year.
- Voter turnout for non-presidential elections holds consistently at under 60% of total eligible, and multiple local elections nationally have experienced voter turnouts of 20% or less.
How much public participation in local government is enough? There’s no set answer, no easy target or simple rubric. But general consensus is, “enough” equals… a whole lot more than this.
And while there isn’t a definitive answer for why people aren’t participating, there’s a whole lot of evidence indicating that it’s not because they’re blissfully delighted by everything that their governments are doing:
- Frustration with government at all levels has remained at high levels for more than a decade
- 66% of national voters currently believe that “the country is headed down the wrong track.”
- A “survey of more than 1400 public officials and local community leaders in California reveals both groups feel that public comment agendas are dominated by narrow interests and negative remarks.”
So. Significant portions of our communities aren’t participating in even the most basic ways, and significant portions of our communities aren’t happy with how things, in general, are going. What do we make of this?
You can find a thousand pundits, professors and assorted talking heads who will give you their learned advice on this topic. And from having read and heard a whole lot of them over the years, I’m going to posit to you a relatively unproveable hypothesis: If you polled all those august figures, I suspect you would find most of them assuming or asserting the following root causes of that disaffectedness:
- The nasty tone of Politics, with its smear campaigns and sound bites, has turned people off on government.
- People increasingly limit their interactions to people who agree with them, and avoid situations where they might have to interact with people who have different opinions than they do.
- Public policy questions are more complex than ever, and as the media and politicians over-simply issues and focus on trying to yell louder than the other, people give up hope that they have any ability to understand or influence the situation.
- People are apathetic. They just don’t care about the future or their community. They’d rather pay attention to celebrity gossip and cat videos.
Probably some truth in all of those. Angry politics clearly energizes a party’s base and alienates most others, residential patterns and social media channels make it easier to only deal with people who look and think like you do, the Big Issues that face us are complex and we’re not getting much useful help understanding them, and…
well, we do like those cat videos. You have to admit that.
The problem with these assumptions are threefold: First, they’re blanket statements, which by their nature means they’re going to be wrong a lot. Second, they assume that the poisons affecting political participation in national issues are the same as those impacting the local communities that you and I must deal with directly every day. As we’ll discuss, I don’t think that’s fully the case. Third, and worst, they infer that the issues are Just Too Big. Impossible for little you in your little burg to fix. C’est la vie.
I’ve spent 20 years working with communities. I’ve worked with the very large and the very tiny, wealthy and desperately poor, on issues that have ranged from routing cars to rebuilding a local economy. And this is what I think is probably keeping your residents from making it to your meetings and participating in your community:
- They’re so overextended that making your meeting means they have to give up something else important. Our models of how we do democracy date from an era when the only people who participated in democratic debate were white men – typically, white men with a farm or other business that someone else could keep operating while they were at the meeting. Think about it: for every man who showed up at a township/school board/ city council meeting in the 1800s, how many wives, women, children, workers, slaves, hired hands, you name it, were back home running the shop? If you’re the white male in that situation, you can sit and debate ad nauseum. No classes to get to, no emails to answer, no children to pick up from soccer, no jobs with evening shifts. How many of us have that today?
That means that the opportunity cost – the value of what else we could be doing with our time – is a whole lot higher than it was for the people who sat through our council meetings 120 years ago. When we want them to come to a meeting, we forget all about the very high cost of their time.
- They figure out quickly that we’re not really trying to talk to them. When our residents do come, they find themselves in a web of jargon. Remember that comprehensive plan meeting? What impact are different levels of residential density or Floor Area Ratios going to have on their everyday lives? Why does it matter whether that square on the map has the residential or the industrial color on it, if we’re talking about 20 years from now?
Why should I spend my time on this? No one has really explained how it impacts me. And don’t forget, I’m paying a high, high price in terms of my time to be here. Looks pretty soon like I made the wrong decision.
- We’re subtly (or not subtly) insulting them. We tell them that their feedback matters, and then we ignore what they tell us in the final report. We invite them to an hourlong meeting, and then we leave 5 minutes for questions (then we tell them that if they didn’t get to talk they can give written feedback, but they have to do it on a note card with one of those golf pencils that never works. Then we use all our responses to defend the Plan, no matter what). We ask them to help us create a vision, to “dream,” to “Think Big!” but then we quietly sidestep the fact that those dreams that we invited talked about things that we don’t have the power, or the resources, or the political will, to do.
We kinda hope they just forget.
In a sense, we’re treating the adults of our communities the way we too often treat children – even worse, “problem” children. We assume that they have nothing better that they could be doing with their time, we assume that it’s their job to figure out how to fit into our world, and we assume that We Always Know Best.
Good teachers know that this approach usually doesn’t work. Good teachers figure out how to meaningfully engage the students. Good teachers don’t always do that perfectly, but they do it a lot better than other teachers. And a lot better than we often do. So perhaps we should go back to school.