This is a selection from Chapter 2 of Crowdsourcing Wisdom. If you like what you read, chances are you will like the book. Learn more about the book and how to get it in print or for your Kindle, iBook or Nook here.
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 data points:
- Voter turnout for non-presidential elections holds consistently at under 60% of total people eligible,[i] and multiple local elections nationally have experienced voter turnouts of 20% or less.
- 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.[ii]
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.[iii]
- 66% of national voters currently believe that “the country is headed down the wrong track.”[iv]
- A “survey of more than 1400 public officials and local community leaders in California reveals that both groups feel that public comment agendas are dominated by narrow interests and negative remarks.”[v]
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 talked with a whole lot of them over the years, I’m going to posit to you a relatively unprovable hypothesis: If you polled all those august figures, I suspect you would find most of them asserting one of the following as the root cause 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 of 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 problems with these assumptions are threefold: First, they’re blanket statements, which by their nature means they’re going to be wrong in a lot of specific instances. 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 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 25 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 an 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 for our citizens 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 opportunity 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 snared in a web of jargon and insider baseball. Remember that comprehensive plan meeting? What impact do different levels of residential density or Floor Area Ratios or Adjusted Daily Traffic (whatever that is) 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, or how my being here makes it better. And 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 hour-long 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, or string out mea culpas about how that issue isn’t part of our job, or say the words that we all know from childhood mean you’re being politely ignored: “That’s interesting…we’ll look into it….
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, he way we treat “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 their 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, to get started, we should go back to school.