There’s a pair of new reports out from Public Agenda (based in NY) on civic engagement in California, and they give some great insights into our local context as well as providing support for our efforts at OpenOakland.
The two reports have some really useful content and despite their length are worth a read. According to the civic leaders report, 87% say that community members are too busy with day-to-day life to get involved in public decision making. This is clearly something many leaders are not happy about (some love it), and there are multiple causes contributing to this symptom of civic health or lack of it, one being the historical trend in how government communicates and engages with it’s citizens. Rarely is a city or county government renowned for great communication of issues, debates and opportunities to participate, and even more rarely is local government responsible for creating highly accessible information on what government is doing and the ways we can actually contribute. As is often the case, poor use of the internet to communicate clearly is a major dis-enfranchiser. We sometimes hear of people lamenting how few citizens show up at council meetings, but consider for a minute how a regular working person would do so:
- Most people never visit city websites.
- Your slightly interested person may visit, and run into the wonders of the Legistar system- confusing pages of tables and links, the “Concurrent meeting of the city council and the redevelopment successor agency” being the obvious choice in Oakland to select if you want to learn about what’s happening at Council.
- You may really want to learn, and you arrive at a scanned/faxed document in PDF form with dozens of pages.
- And you’re done. Too confusing, too messy, disengage. Go back to consuming.
This is not about technological solutionism, it’s about good process and tools to eliminate barriers to civic engagement and involvement. This is why we chose to implement Councilmatic for Oakland, coming soon, as a way to help ordinary people find easy information about things in the public sphere that concern them. I’m super excited about this future- where people can easily engage in matters they care about! This system was just launched in Chicago also.
The major findings I thought were important to highlight are:
- Public meetings often do not meet the needs of residents or local officials.
- Large segments of the public are often missing from the decision-making process — especially low-income populations, immigrants and young people.
- Local officials and civic leaders in California share concern for a disconnect between the public and local decision makers.
- Local officials use online media and web-based engagement hesitantly.
- Both also desire greater public participation and stronger collaboration.
One other key finding that resonates with my experience is this:
Local officials are confident in their capacity to implement a deliberative engagement process. Aside from the task of ensuring broad-based participation, local officials are quite confident in their ability to effectively implement a comprehensive deliberative public engagement process.
Few officials see other major challenges to ensuring a quality process. However, there are some indications that this confidence is not always grounded in practical experience.
Without jumping into the American Exceptional-ism theory, this is an important paradox. Leaders think they can nail this, frequently, without having ever had training in it, participated in it or without seeking high level support to implement it. This is a dangerous fallacy, it is not easy, simple or commonly done, so our leaders expressing such confidence in this either suggests they do not have a real desire to implement this properly or that they simply overestimate how hard it is, but don’t want to look like they are behind the curve. This is problematic for those of us seeking this as a new norm, expectations must be realistic or at the first tough hurdle in this process a local leader is going to quit the process.
Take a gander at the infographic, it’s quite informative, and a much more enjoyable read than my post I expect.