Opening the Government and improving public engagement has many aspects being addressed by many and especially by those of us interested in improving the quality dialogue in the citizenry and promoting new ideas for deliberative democracy. One aspect not getting much attention as yet is getting beyond just increasing citizen input to the governing process to also increasing the quality of citizen understanding of the major issues.
We Americans are relatively ignorant about the world outside our borders and to some extent outside our regional localities as well. Many are one issue oriented and often ‘my backyard’ focused. Public engagement and opening the government should perhaps simultaneously address the quality and quantity of participation and collaboration with the government along with the desired ‘opening’ of the governing structure to more effective engagement.
Here are some basic concepts we might follow in this direction. 1) Rather than ‘one-off’ or occasional encounters, programs to improve dialogue and citizen participation should be sustaining so that those participating can maintain interest and grow in the quality and quantity of their contributions.
2) We must have real and sustaining diversity in the programs—the ‘reds and the blues’, the ‘farmers and the cowboys’ (remembering Oklahoma), the military and the pacifists, etc. 3) And, we must engage the local citizen with the professional advocates of differing policy choices (those at home engaging in the vigorous policy dialogue generated by our leading think tanks on all sides of the issues). Reading only from our textbooks or our condensed issue handbooks is not the same as listening to the debates live or virtually live and then reflecting with their neighbors on what they hear—especially with those of opposing viewpoints.
In addition to organizing the open government and public engagement from Washington and the Federal Government out (that is, top-down), let’s also work from the bottom up. How many colleges and community colleges with multiple numbers of political science and government teachers do we have in the US? How many high schools with teachers of social studies do we have? How many local branches of the American Legion, the Veterans for Foreign Wars, the League of Women Voters, the NRA, and others do we have?
Is there not some way to engage our local leaders in active, sustained dialogue that will both generate new, increased and informed interest in public policy issues and also significantly increase the quality of understanding and resulting engagement in the public dialogue?
A phenomenal number of professionals and organizations now exist, and more are appearing each year, with the strategy and competence to carry out this task. Many are in fact already doing the basics of what is suggested here. But a nation-wide and sustainable program is not yet on the table. Is it possible that something like Mayor Khai Degner’s Sustainability Summit (May 30, 2009, in Harrisonburg VA) using any of the methodologies like open space, world café, issues forums, sustained dialogue, or many others could be held regularly in virtually every county in the U S? Is it possible that Rotary Clubs, the Eagles, the Elks, the VFW, the American Legion and many other community organizations could be enticed to join in public dialogues about major policy issues? Is it possible that our political scientists and social studies teachers, and others as well, could actively join in to support and to assist such endeavors?