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Is Local Engagement Weakening National Engagement?

The team at the Davenport Institute, one of or NCDD member organizations, recently shared what some might see as a provocative interview by NCDD Supporting Member Caroline Lee on the pitfalls of what she calls the public engagement industry. Caroline’s new book worries that wider spread public participation may encourage average citizens to focus solely on local politics while leaving larger scale politics to big organizations and institutions.
Are there negative impacts of public participation work that we need to pay more attention to? If so, what are they? Let us know what you think – read the Davenport piece and the interview linked below, and share your reactions in the comments section.


On The Public Engagement Industry

DavenportInst-logoCaroline Lee, a sociologist at Lafayette College, has a thoughtful and critical view of what she’s dubbed the “Public Engagement Industry.” In her book Do-It-Yourself Democracy: The Rise of the Public Engagement Industry, she considers the successes of the rise of public engagement and poses worthwhile questions about its future. On the one hand, public engagement efforts generate a sense of tangible involvement, lacking from traditional public hearings:

A public hearing where everyone gets three minutes at a microphone is really unsatisfying. This new kind of public engagement involves people talking in small groups, telling their stories, giving reasons for their ideas and maybe even changing their minds.

On the other hand, she argues, “some problems are too big for individuals to fix.”  She argues that if citizens focus too much on the local level, important national issues will take a backseat:

These processes have short-term impacts on people’s attitudes towards politics and their sense that individuals are key to social change, but this new kind of public engagement shifts people’s expectations of the institutions that we all rely on. Participants tend to see the local level as the only reasonable place for action and to leave the larger politics of public life up to those organizational clients and institutional sponsors. We face such challenging systemic problems – climate change, the global financial crisis – that we just can’t afford for the ambitions of the electorate to be limited that way.

This is a very different take on local engagement from that of 19th century observer Alexis deToqueville who saw in the ability to collaborate on small local concerns a training ground for large scale undertakings.  Is local engagement really drawing people away from areas of national interest? Or is, as Tocqueville might have suggested, an era where voter turnout is much lower for local than national elections an era where decreased civic engagement at all levels should be expected?  

You can see Lee’s interview with U.S. News and World Report is here, and her website is here.

You can find the original version of this Davenport Institute post http://incommon.pepperdine.edu/2015/10/on-the-public-engagement-industry

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Roshan Bliss
An inclusiveness trainer and group process facilitator, Roshan Bliss serves as NCDD's Youth Engagement Coordinator and Blog Curator. Combining his belief that decisions are better when everyone is involved with his passion for empowering young people, his work focuses on increasing the involvement of youth and students in public conversations.

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