Our Common Purpose
Strategy 3: Ensure the Responsiveness of Political Institutions
Strategy 3: Ensure the Responsiveness of Political Institutions
“Most of the officials that we elect I don’t feel like come from where we are. . . . They have no understanding of killing their selves and working four jobs to support their kids and their athletics and their schooling, or whatever. I just feel like they don’t have an idea of what we go through in the middle-to-lower class.”
Democracy happens constantly. Participating in elections, the subject of Strategy 2, is an important practice of democratic citizenship, but part of the Commission’s work has been to encourage Americans to focus on and develop other forms of civic participation.
Apart from voting, what other formal mechanisms of participation are available to the American citizen in the twenty-first century? How can we improve the mechanisms that currently exist and what new ones might we invent? The recommendations of Strategy 3 answer these questions.
Official public meetings like town halls, city council meetings, and congressional hearings are an abiding and familiar format for representatives to engage with their constituents in-between election cycles. We can begin by redesigning them to be more participatory: make them reach beyond the organized, loud, or well-resourced voices of the few, and make them more productive, so that all interactions are well-informed, substantive, and direct. Elected officials should use new technologies to create meaningful interactions on a large scale, an essential task at the federal level, where the average member of Congress represents nearly three-quarters of a million people. The Commission recommends mechanisms for individual members of Congress to interact directly with representative samples of their constituents and for Congress, as a whole, to interact with the people as a whole. Finally, on all levels of government, policy-makers should create new participatory opportunities that bring new voices and perspectives into the policy-making process.
Collectively, the recommendations of Strategy 3 will make political institutions more responsive. With responsive institutions (Strategy 3) and voters empowered with equal voice and representation (Strategies 1 and 2), already the practice of democratic citizenship is beginning to look much brighter.
Adopt formats, processes, and technologies that are designed to encourage widespread participation by residents in official public hearings and meetings at local and state levels.
Americans may report higher levels of trust in their local rather than federal representatives, but 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.49 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.50 In communities large and small, our listening-session participants told us, 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.
- In 2019, four decades after thousands of Cambodian refugees relocated to Lowell, Massachusetts, the Lowell City Council Interpretation Project began to issue summaries of City Council meetings in Spanish and Khmer, the official language of Cambodia, on local cable channels and YouTube. The organizers’ goal for these translations is that more community members will be informed about decisions that affect them and will feel prepared to vote in local elections. As in other small cities that have worked to make translated materials available to the public, funding issues jeopardize the longevity of the program.
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.
Design structured and engaging mechanisms for every member of Congress to interact directly and regularly with a random sample of their constituents in an informed and substantive conversation about policy areas under consideration.
The further up the ladder of government we climb, the more challenging it becomes to ensure the responsiveness of political institutions. It is easier to be responsive to 7,500 constituents than to 750,000. Ensuring that members of Congress are responsive to their constituents, therefore, calls for mechanisms that go beyond traditional public hearings and meetings.
“So, why do I show up? I’m going to speak and then you’re not going to respond and you’re going to proceed with the agenda.”
—St. Paul, Minnesota
New meeting designs and technologies make it possible for members of Congress to engage in deliberations with broad and representative cross-sections of their constituencies. Random sampling can help ensure that the citizen participants engaged are, indeed, representative of the district: that is the first challenge. Once the participants to deliberate on a specific policy issue have been found, two inputs are required: high-quality nonpartisan information and briefing materials on the issue, and platforms—both digital and in-person—that encourage substantive and civil discussion. Finally, for the project to be successful, participating citizens must be guaranteed direct interaction with their representative.
- Twenty years ago, the nonpartisan Americans Discuss Social Security initiative launched a series of forums that engaged more than fifty thousand Americans in all fifty states and created dialogue about Social Security reform with elected officials and policy experts. Policy-makers in both the U.S. Senate and House heard crucial input that culminated in the decision to raise the annual cap on payroll taxes.
- More recently, multiple projects have demonstrated the potential for digital platforms to connect elected officials directly with constituents for conversations that impact policy outcomes. Successful examples include digital town-hall meetings and representative citizens’ panels, like Voice of the People, that combine digital deliberations with in-person discussions.51
Every member of Congress should commit to participating in such forums a minimum of four times per year. With trust in Congress at historic lows, the need for this new level of participation and communication is paramount. Ideally, elected officials at all levels of government would also regularly participate in forums such as these.
- 51See Michael A. Neblo, Kevin M. Esterling, and David Lazer, Politics with the People (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018); and Voice of the People.
Promote experimentation with citizens’ assemblies to enable the public to interact directly with Congress as an institution on issues of Congress’s choosing.
For Congress to become a truly responsive institution, the House of Representatives must engage directly with the people. Just as constituents of individual districts should, through deliberation, inform the decision-making of their individual members, representative samples of America should come together collectively to deliberate about issues of national importance and submit their recommendations to Congress. These representative groups of citizens are known as “citizens’ assemblies.”52
“I want to live in a democracy where I can trust and respect institutions, but at the same time, I want those institutions to trust and respect me.”
Citizens’ assemblies rebuild and foster trust in the institution of Congress and get the public more engaged and vested in policy outcomes.53 The value of this work can be seen in other Western democracies working to engage more of their citizens and give them a better seat at the table in decision-making on critical policy issues. The British Parliament, for example, has authorized a national citizens’ assembly on the issue of climate change that will take into account the outcomes of five regional citizens’ assemblies. Ireland and Portugal, for their part, have both implemented national citizens’ assemblies that led to tangible policy outcomes. In Ireland, recommendations from the citizens’ assembly led the Irish Parliament to pass legislation to protect gay rights. An electronic version of a citizens’ assembly is being implemented in Taiwan.
The United States lags many of its democratic peers with respect to citizens’ assemblies, but we nonetheless have a proven track record that can inform future experimentation. In 2010, AmericaSpeaks organized a citizens’ assembly on debt and the national deficit. Three thousand five hundred Americans in fifty-seven locations, linked by video, were invited to deliberate on America’s fiscal future. Their recommendations were submitted to the Senate and House budget committees and were critical to the work of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, a bipartisan presidential commission on deficit reduction led by Senator Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles. More recently, CommonSense American—an initiative of the National Institute for Civil Discourse—put a set of challenging policy issues before a representative sample of Americans whose recommendations will form part of the policy debate in Congress. Those issues included the funding of Pell Grants, the problem of surprise emergency-room billing, and possible reforms to the legislative calendar.
These examples demonstrate that the public is ready to grapple with policy issues and engage with Congress as an institution, and that we have the methods and technology needed to do this productively. Members of Congress now need to exert the political will to make it happen, in part by harnessing the power of citizens’ assemblies.
- 52See Participedia.
- 53See Michael A. Neblo, Kevin M. Esterling, Ryan P. Kennedy, et al., “Who Wants to Deliberate—And Why?” American Political Science Review 104 (3) (2010): 566–583.
Expand the breadth of participatory opportunities at municipal and state levels for citizens to shape decision-making, budgeting, and other policy-making processes.
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. Knowing that a community supports the building of a new park is just the first step in the long process of seeing that park opened to the public. Where should the park be located? Who will the park be designed to serve? What other programs might need to be cut to pay for it?
“It was all new to them. . . . They were just active volunteers who loved to be together, and they had to learn the political process to get this done.”
—Ventura County, California
Participatory budgeting, citizens’ juries, deliberative polling, the Citizens’ Initiative Review, and Dialogue to Change: all involve participatory processes that engage citizens in the give-and-take of government decision-making.54 Applied with intent, these processes can help strengthen the responsiveness of governments, energize state and local civic engagement, and bring new and underrepresented voices into the policy-making process. With participatory budgeting, for example, a portion of public spending is made directly by citizens. Although there is no universal template, participatory-budgeting processes typically include the following elements: citizens who represent the community and brainstorm ideas for possible funding projects; volunteers (either citizens or experts) who winnow the list of ideas to a set of feasible proposals; and citizens who vote on the best proposal, which the government or institution in question then funds.
- In the United States, nearly five hundred thousand participants have allocated $280 million through participatory budgeting, and over three thousand cities around the world have allocated some portion of their budget through similar processes.55
- After the 2012 school shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, tens of thousands of citizens participated in community dialogues around mental health issues. These dialogues had many beneficial effects. They prompted the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, for example, to provide $5 million in community grants in support of civic engagement and mental health first-aid training. They also prompted municipal governments, school systems, jails, and police departments around the country to create policies that deployed resources in line with citizen-established priorities.56
All of these processes contribute meaningfully to the deliberative practice of democracy. They impart long-term civic skills and habits; they facilitate communication between elected officials and their constituents; and they help citizens better understand what goes into governing. Governments should provide support to participants by engaging experts to impart best practices, assess the feasibility of proposals, and monitor projects once underway.
- 54For more examples and details, see Participedia.
- 55Participatory Budgeting Project, “What is PB?” (accessed January 22, 2020).
- 56Participedia, “The National Dialogue on Mental Health.”