Increased citizen participation in government: Fad or new reality? Part Three

Increased citizen participation in both nonprofits and government seems to parallel the rise of the new economy. Can we harness the interest to both improve governance and satisfy citizens?

Voters often complain there is little difference between candidates. Sometimes that is less a complaint about the lack of real philosophical differences, and more about the challenges of choosing candidates when none appear open to really listening to citizens and considering their input. Efforts to improve participation will also help to resolve these issues.

Writing about nonprofits, Saxton says there “..is a dearth of practical organizational models that are both compatible with existing organizational forms and fully conform to the requirements of a participatory age.” The same can be said of governmental boards. The problem is even more difficult for governments in that most have little to say about the structure they must operate within. Constitutions, as well as state laws governing local government structures are purposely made to be difficult to change, requiring careful deliberation about the possible effects of changing structures. Healthy economies require a degree of stability and predictability. So, for government boards that cannot change their basic structure, how can they become more participatory?

Gregory Saxton, in his paper titled, “The Participatory Revolution in Nonprofit Management”, speaks of, “…organizations…increasingly turning to non- and semi-permanent participatory decision-making processes such as Open Space technology, Future Search meetings, citizen summits, participatory budgeting, citizen juries, and consensus conferences.” These are just a few examples. Participatory government is limited only by the creativity of the governing boards, and the attention span of the citizens. Municipalities are using web sites to gather information from citizens about a variety of important topics. One native nation I have worked with developed a method for using Adobe Connect software, thought by some to be only useful for webinars, to broadcast meetings to distant tribal members, complete with advance access to agendas and opportunities for comment during meetings.

While laws dictate who can make certain kinds of decisions in government and often carefully defines power and separation of powers, most also require some degree of openness in the processes used to gather input and deliberate about decisions. None that I have seen dictate or prohibit specific means of involving citizens in the process.

This is the third of a four-part series on the Michigan State University Extension web site. Read more in part four, or start at the beginning if you missed the first two. 

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