The Problem: Dropping Civic Participation
We live in a democracy that faces decreasing participation on a dramatic scale. In many respects, because of our republican form of government, the only real opportunity we have to engage in public decision-making is during periodic elections.
With so little control and distanced from the decision-making process, from the momentous decisions that have lingering effects on their lives, citizens are disempowered, and, as a result, they lose interest.
In contrast, there have been few times in our history when citizen involvement might have been more important. The issues facing our county, as well as our states and our cities, would benefit greatly from higher, and more informed, citizen participation. Our country is facing the prospect of out-of-control entitlement growth, insufficient tax revenues, lingering high unemployment, aging and crumbling bridges and roads, and rising healthcare costs, to name a few problems that affect our nation, states, and municipalities of all sizes.
Oh, and lest we forget that American soldiers are in harm’s way, we’re also engaged in two foreign wars, too.
Yet, despite all these things that can and will affect our future, both collectively and individually, citizen participation in civic decision-making is extremely low. In a few years, we will pay higher taxes, our money will be worth less, and our healthcare will cost more and discriminate against the poor more.
How can participation be improved, then, and increased? How do we get more people engaged in decision-making? And more informed about the decisions, too?
The Idea: Deliberative Democracy
What if, in addition to voting to electing our leaders, we also were more engaged in the actual decision-making process? What if decisions made by elected leaders were better informed by what educated voters want?
It’s what we might call “deliberative democracy.” Rather than just voting for leaders, but getting a lot of the same results, why not engage an informed citizenry in the decisions that will raise their taxes, fix their roads, improve their healthcare, and send their sons and daughters to war. James Fishkin, of Stanford University, has an idea to do just that, and he calls it “deliberate polling.”
A random, representative sample is first polled on the targeted issues. After this baseline poll, members of the sample are invited to gather at a single place for a weekend in order to discuss the issues. Carefully balanced briefing materials are sent to the participants and are also made publicly available. The participants engage in dialogue with competing experts and political leaders based on questions they develop in small group discussions with trained moderators. Parts of the weekend events are broadcast on television, either live or in taped and edited form. After the deliberations, the sample is again asked the original questions. The resulting changes in opinion represent the conclusions the public would reach, if people had opportunity to become more informed and more engaged by the issues.
Would it work? And would it help our process? Provide better checks on the myopic swings between left and right in our elective politics, provide for more incentive for people to engage in the political process.
Often, if not usually, citizens are insufficiently informed about public policy issues. Under this “deliberative democracy” model, citizens might be informed, educated, and then engaged in the decision-making. The decisions are theirs, rather than those of a Congress with no incentive to responsibility for the results of their actions.
The very nature of the Congress–dispersing responsibility and decreasing accountability–makes it easier for Congressmen and Senators to give more benefits than to cut them. Why not include the people who are most effected in the decisions and force elected officials to acknowledge and make public policy decisions that are in the public interest, not theirs?
Rather than receiving their information solely from lobbyists devoted to a single issue, interest group, or constituency, why not instead inform their decisions with the participation of educated citizens?