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

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?

Increasing meaningful citizen participation in government is an important goal. Part one of this article series introduces the topic and its parallels to similar trends in the nonprofit sector.

Solutions which require legislative action by the governmental unit often require even more time. The legislative process is designed to consider input from many interested parties, with a goal of producing solutions that are effective and minimize unintended consequences. Many of you are thinking, and I must admit, that in practice, it doesn’t always happen this way. History is littered with the debris of poorly-researched, incompletely-considered and hurried legislation that creates more problems than it solves.

The challenge, then, for governmental units, is to first build trust with citizens by engaging in responsive, thoughtful deliberation which seeks to solve problems as broadly as possible. Once that foundation is laid, governments need to find ways to begin two-way communications quickly with episodically-involved citizens that are effective, work toward resolving the issues and are respectful of the citizens need/desire to interact in this episodic fashion.

At the same time, the government unit needs to help citizens understand the inherent complexity of many of these issues and the need to accommodate a multiplicity of viewpoints, the unit’s limitations in terms of staff and revenue and the likelihood that solving the problem may take longer than both the individual and the government desire. Unfortunately, I do not have a simple, one-step solution to this. I do think that the creative use of current and future electronic/computer communications technology may be a significant part of the solution.

Gregory Saxton, in his paper titled “The Participatory Revolution in Nonprofit Management”, also talks about breadth and depth of participation in nonprofit decision-making. He defines breadth as “…representativeness of the constituents involved in decision-making beyond the traditional power centers of the board and executive management”, and talks about depth in the sense of going beyond simply providing input and being heard to “…having the power to make the ultimate decisions.” One could argue that citizens already have both breadth and depth of participation in that anyone can participate in the decision-making process, especially where Open Meetings laws exist, and that the ultimate decision-making power of voting board members out of office rests with citizens.

But that argument misses a critical point. Typical government meeting times and places make it impossible for some, and very difficult for others, to participate due to work and other obligations. The lack of readily-available information about meeting processes in some jurisdictions also communicates that citizens are not welcome to participate. Simple steps, such as clear and complete information about meeting rules and procedures in print and on web sites, written and reviewed by people who are new to the process, and minimizing and/or explaining jargon, can be implemented. Varying meeting times and places can also help those with work schedules that are not flexible to be able to participate.

This is the second of a four-part series on the Michigan State University Extension web site. Read more in part three

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