A healthy constitutional democracy depends on a virtuous cycle in which responsive political institutions foster a healthy civic culture of participation and responsibility, while a healthy civic culture—a combination of values, norms, and narratives—keeps our political institutions responsive and inclusive.
The Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship was established in the spring of 2018 by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences with the challenge to consider what it means to be a good citizen in the twenty-first century, and to explore how all of us might obtain the values, knowledge, and skills to become still better citizens.
The Commission identified the profoundly challenging conditions of the twenty-first century as an urgent threat to the future of our democratic way of life, thus requiring a national re-commitment to our common purpose: rooted not only in the language of our Constitution and laws, but also in our expanded national creed of liberty and justice for all; not only in the actions of government, but also in the commitments of citizens; not only in the reinvention of federal and state structures, but also in devolution of power to local governance; not only in research and analysis, but also in love of country and one another.
Through a multipronged engagement process, the Commission identified success stories of democratic engagement at different government levels as well as common barriers to civic participation, and arrived at six broad strategies (along with 31 detailed recommendations):
Strategy 1: Achieve Equality of Voice and Representation
Strategy 2: Empower Voters
Strategy 3: Ensure the Responsiveness of Political Institutions
Strategy 4: Dramatically Expand Civic Bridging Capacity
Strategy 5: Build Civic Information Architecture that Supports Common Purpose
Strategy 6: Inspire a Culture of Commitment to American Constitutional Democracy and One Another
As part of the desire to ensure the responsiveness of government institutions, recognition is given in the Commission’s recommendations to the fact that participation and responsiveness are better achieved at the state and local level, closer to the people. Direct and substantive interaction between members of the public and their congressional representatives on specific issues will increase the responsiveness of that institution and its members to the will of the people. But participatory opportunities should also extend to all other levels of government and into the processes of government decision-making.
Yet, while Americans report higher levels of trust in their local rather than federal representatives, citizens still face barriers to engagement at the local level. In a recent survey, 43 percent of California civic leaders said their members do not get more involved in local government because they lack the knowledge or opportunities to do so. Among the troubling conditions Americans identified in the Commission’s listening sessions are: low attendance at town and city council meetings; public hearings scheduled at inopportune times, with little notice; a glut of open seats for local offices and a lack of candidates competing for them; low-information elections that result in voter apathy and poor turnout; and increasing partisanship at the local level.
Public meetings and hearings are often structured in a way that impedes engagement between officials and their constituents. In California, local officials and leaders agree that traditional public hearings tend to lead to gripe sessions, fail to generate thoughtful discussion, and reflect the interests of a few well-organized groups rather than the full community. In communities large and small, too many public meetings seem to be designed “for show,” with all of the important decisions having already been made behind the scenes. These realities discourage participation and corrode faith in the notion that local government is well-equipped to solve basic problems. Of course, policy-makers often do have to set priorities and put certain items on the agenda, or not. We are not suggesting that all meetings be so open and open-ended that no business can occur. Yet public meetings can expand the role of the citizen to increase the legitimacy of the outcomes.
Community leaders around the United States are working to make public hearings and meetings more accessible to their constituents. They recognize that citizen engagement can improve if they help break down the barriers to participation.
Local officials and governing bodies are drawing on a growing number of resources and mechanisms to make public meetings more inclusive and participatory. These innovations in engagement and design include: live-streaming meetings and allowing people to participate online or by phone (innovations that have in fact already been rapidly advanced by the COVID-19 pandemic); adopting facilitated small-group breakout sessions within large meetings to encourage greater participation and connection; using a trained moderator to help ensure all voices are heard; and adopting times and locations that are friendlier to all parts of the public. Some municipalities have hired directors of civic engagement to build meaningful opportunities for civic voice and to foster government responsiveness. All local and state public officials should learn about and use civic-engagement principles and meeting designs that encourage and solicit input from a broad cross section of the community. Devolving power to local levels, where possible, will also further energize local engagement.