In launching the Office of Public Engagement, the President said, "This office will seek to engage as many Americans as possible in the difficult work of changing this country, through meetings and conversations with groups and individuals held in Washington and across the country."
The key word is "work." The Administration has an opportunity to redefine citizens as people who work on public problems; the government is an institution that helps them do that. The Administration can thereby revive the New Deal's conception of citizenship in our time of economic crisis.
Rhetoric of "public work" will be much more powerful and resonant than language about "transparency, participation, and collaboration." The OPE has promised to "allow ordinary Americans to offer their stories and ideas regarding issues that concern them and share their views on important topics such as health care, energy and education." But I am skeptical that people (including me) are motivated to discuss issues--or are adequately informed about issues--if their only opportunity is to "offer stories" and "share views." Work is motivating and educational. It can draw a broad cross-section of Americans, whereas only specialists usually want to provide opinions and ideas.
The President has signed the Kennedy Serve America Act, which will triple the size of AmeriCorps. AmeriCorps' members work on public problems. But it remains to be seen whether they will gain serious responsibilities so that they can develop skills of analysis, leadership and deliberation. A great opportunity is to enlist them in organizing and facilitating public conversations about policy. That would require coordination between the White House Office of Public Engagement and the Corporation for National and Community Service.
The President has signed legislation to spend more than $200 billion in stimulus funds in areas like health care, infrastructure, and energy. That money will pay the salaries of public and private sector workers. They need to be treated as "active citizens" and invited to participate in discussions of policies and public priorities so that they can combine their labor with civic participation.
The imminent retirement of roughly one million federal employees offers an opportunity to rethink public service so that jobs in the public sector become more rewarding and creative—to flatten hierarchies and promote collaboration, including partnerships between the government and community groups.
Last summer, candidate Obama said, "I will ask for your service and your active citizenship when I am President of the United States. This will not be a call issued in one speech or one program—-this will be a central cause of my presidency." Active citizenship includes expressing your views about issues, but it also requires service and work. That combination is essential.