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Op-Ed by Mica Stark for Union Leader

This article was written as part of the “Democracy Communications Network,” a 2007-2009 project that encouraged leaders in deliberative democracy to periodically write op-eds and blog posts as part of larger, collaborative media campaigns to raise awareness of the importance of quality public engagement. Use the “Democracy Communications Network” tag to see the articles  written in association with this project.

Published by the Manchester, New Hampshire on October 24, 2007. View the article at unionleader.com.

Americans yearn for a more collaborative democracy

By MICA STARK

Increasingly, Americans are retreating from politics and public life. Whether it is partisan gridlock, money and politics, the role of special interests, or lack of trust in our elected officials, Americans are not happy with the current state of our democracy.

In many ways, the New Hampshire primary represents a hopeful time for voters of all political stripes as we seek to find a candidate that will effectively change and address the problems our country is facing.

For good reason, the Iraq war is dominating the 2008 presidential primary debate. Health care, the environment and education are also receiving considerable attention by the Republican and Democratic candidates, and by voters.

However, this month Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards delivered one of the more important speeches of the cycle thus far on the health and state of our democracy. Speaking in Keene, Edwards called for the creation of a Citizen Congress that every two years will convene one million Americans in national discussions on issues of high public concern.

The Citizen Congress will offer our nation’s leaders advisory opinions on the challenges facing our country and the trade-offs among different solutions. These convenings will combine local town halls with the latest technology to create true national discussions amongst the American people, unfiltered by interest groups.

While the merits of Edwards’ proposal need to be debated, the issue of how the public can be more involved in policymaking and governance should be front and center during the primary, and voters should be pressing all the candidates, on both sides, for their specific ideas in how they see citizens participating and partnering with the next administration in solving our collective problems.

Many of the presidential candidates have offered up good, substantive plans to expand opportunities for Americans to perform community service. While we need to continue to expand and encourage community service, we also need our leaders to tap the skills and experience of the citizenry to address our political challenges — to invite them to be part of the solution. After election day, most citizens are left on the sidelines as spectators with little opportunity to shape the decisions being made on their behalf.

Across the globe, public leaders have begun advocating new means of involving citizens in governance. Most notably, newly elected British Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced a new program to regularly convene the British people in deliberations on issues like health care, education and public safety. Here in New Hampshire, one can look at Portsmouth, where a group of citizens, organized under the name of Portsmouth Listens, has effectively partnered with local government leaders to bring more citizen voice into decision making. It is the way government now operates in Portsmouth.

And the University of New Hampshire’s Co-Operative Extension program has worked with some 70 towns on “community profiles” — deliberative events that bring citizens into discussion with local leaders around substantive, local issues such as planning, transportation and schools.

As chronicled in Matt Leighninger’s book “The Next Form of Democracy,” communities across the country are moving to a shared governance model. The result is greater citizen participation, better collaboration with leaders and sound political decision making. There is a quiet but growing civic renewal movement at the local level, and it is time that all the presidential candidates offer their ideas on ways that citizens can participate in governance.

The strongest argument in defense of the New Hampshire primary is that we take politics very seriously and we challenge the presidential candidates to explain their positions on a range of issues. New Hampshire voters ask tough questions and force the candidates to engage in retail politics. In short, citizens are at the center of the primary, and we play an important role in the overall nominating process of our Presidents.

It is in this spirit that New Hampshire voters need to press the candidates on their plans to create meaningful opportunities for citizens to work together to solve our collective problems. The next President cannot and will not solve our problems alone. The American people need to be tapped to work with government, the private sector and the nonprofit sector to accomplish this.

Mica Stark of New Boston is founding chairman of City Year New Hampshire’s board of directors.

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