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Op-Ed by Tina Nabatchi in the Post-Standard (Syracuse, NY)

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.

Tina tells us that the placement her piece was amazing – full color, on the front page of the opinion section. It’s currently on the Post-Standard site at www.syracuse.com/poststandard/stories/index.ssf?/base/opinion-0/1195207500290140.xml&coll=1.

Reviving Democracy Edwards’ ‘Citizen Congress’ plan has the potential of reconnecting us to our government

Sunday, November 18, 2007
By Tina Nabatchi
Syracuse University

As another election day passes, America faces a critical challenge: how to rebuild the public’s trust in our democratic institutions. We assert that ours is the best democracy, yet Americans feel increasingly disempowered by and disenfranchised from government. According to a recent CBS News/New York Times poll, less than one-quarter of Americans think they can trust the government in Washington to do what is right “just about always” or “most of the time.”

Similarly, a poll by the Pew Charitable Trust recently found that two-thirds of Americans do not believe that government cares “what people like me think.” It is not surprising, then, that America has the lowest voter turnout rate among industrialized democracies. Clearly, the institutions of American government are not adequately fulfilling our vision of democracy.

And how can they? Our usual methods of political participation put citizens on the sidelines. While casting a vote is a critical responsibility in a democracy, that single vote offers no real expression of opinion on a specific policy matter. Similarly, a campaign contribution can signal broad, general support, but does not allow the expression of individual preferences on particular issues (unless you are a well-funded special interest group).

Letters to government representatives are answered by staff assistants with boilerplate correspondence. And even when an elected official shows up to hold a “town hall meeting” with constituents, there is little room for direct participation; one must show up and wait, sometimes for hours, to get three minutes of microphone time.

Most of us have no formal way to participate in decision making about the issues of highest public concern Iraq, taxes, health care, jobs, global warming, the environment, education, Social Security; the list can go on and on. No wonder the CBS News/New York Times poll found that only 10 percent of Americans believe they have a say in what the government does a “good deal” of the time!

Finally, however, one of the presidential candidates is taking on this problem. Last month, John Edwards unveiled a government reform proposal that seeks to re-engage Americans with politics and government. His One Democracy initiative calls for the participation of ordinary Americans in politics through a Citizen Congress a program in which millions of Americans nationwide would participate in deliberations about critical policy issues, identify the challenges and trade- offs facing our country, and offer advisory opinions to leaders.

Edwards’ plan has the potential to strengthen our national democracy and reverse the trend of disengagement among American citizens by offering them a new voice. It could help the public identify common priorities (not the priorities of special interests and business), foster common ground and consensus, and develop solutions for the common good. In doing so, it could create a broad public constituency to stand behind and support our leaders’ political actions, however difficult they might be. Mobilizing and engaging citizens in this way could help build the political will we so desperately need to act on serious matters of public policy.

I can hear the skeptics shouting now. But this idea can work and has. Edwards’ vision of the Citizen Congress is modeled on the AmericaSpeaks 21st Century Town Meeting, which uses trained facilitators and various partici-

patory technologies to engage thousands of citizens in dialogue and decision-making about public policy issues. There are additional citizen engagement processes that also support Edwards’ proposal, including deliberative polls, study circles, public conversations, issues forums and participatory budgeting.

Research shows that these deliberative processes do work. In addition to informing government officials about the needs and preferences of citizens, such processes also educate citizens about policy issues and the trade- offs among various policy options. The result is improved citizens’ political knowledge, interest, and efficacy, and greater trust in government.

With his One Democracy initiative and Citizen Congress proposal, Edwards joins an emerging movement that seeks to enhance the democratic processes and institutions of America and give ordinary people a greater say in the critical decisions we face as a nation. Perhaps other presidential hopefuls will follow his cue and help lead the way toward realizing Abraham Lincoln’s long-ago articulated vision of democracy as “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

Tina Nabatchi is an assistant professor of public administration in the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University.

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