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Why Involve Citizens in Policymaking?

There are many examples of municipalities, school districts, and civic groups "marketing" their pre-determined positions under the guise of "public engagement," but current events and recent conversations with local leaders in California reveal that we are moving into a unique period in municipal governance - one in which officials at the city and school district level around the state are proactively engaging their residents in policy-making. Most of the reasons offered for this change fit into three main themes.

The first is technological. The growth of the internet as both a communications and research tool has completely altered the relationship between our political leaders and citizens. In his best-selling book, Here Comes Everybody, author, Clay Shirky, declares, "We are living in the middle of the largest increase in expressive capability in the history of the human race. More people can communicate more things to more people than has ever been possible in the past." Through blogs, every citizen has a bullhorn and can broadcast her issues with the local government or school system. Through social network sites like Facebook, MySpace, and others, citizens are organizing more easily than ever before. Through email campaigns, citizens can barrage local officials with hundreds (even thousands) of messages.

While these can be tremendous assets for citizens to express their opinion, such platforms are hardly transparent and may not be representative. A Los Angeles-area city manager recently confided, "I'm getting bombarded with emails and I have no way of knowing whether this is one person sending me multiple messages from many accounts, or if I have a serious problem on my hands." In a yet unanswered challenge to the Founders of our nation, the definition of "factions" is fundamentally changing. Gone is the time when the representative nature of an organization could be determined through its membership or its assembled representatives.

A second, and particularly Californian reason is our increasing ethnic diversity. With the 2000 Census, California became the first "majority-minority" state, meaning there is not a single ethnicity greater than 50% of our population. Logically, this suggests that leaders face greater language and cultural barriers in communicating with constituents. This reasoning was borne out in a groundbreaking study released last year by sociologist and author of Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam. In the report entitled, "E Pluribus Unum", Putnam's researchers analyzed the effects of ethnic diversity on civic participation in 41 cities across the United States. In all of the metro areas studied, Putnam found an inverse relationship between ethnic diversity and public engagement. In fact, three of the four lowest scoring cities in Putnam's measure of participation were in California (Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Oakland).

Finally, California's ongoing budget crisis is forcing local leaders to make excruciatingly difficult decisions about what services they will be able to offer in the coming year. In the last few years, we have seen growth in "participatory budgeting" efforts, as cash-strapped cities like Morgan Hill and Menlo Park have engaged their residents in the budget process during a deficit period. This year we are witnessing many more municipalities attempting to do the same thing. Cities from Brea to Salinas are considering similar projects. No doubt a few of these efforts will be lobbying efforts for higher taxes/fees, but the vast majority are being launched by civic officials who are desperate for the informed opinion of their residents.

Public engagement was once thought to be another attack of the "Goo-Goo's" - the name given to those who fought for more transparent government in the early 1900's. The factors enumerated here are pushing many of our state's leaders to intentionally, and legitimately, engage their residents in the difficult policy decisions before their cities and school districts. Seeking the input of the fully informed citizen has never been more important.