Our Common Purpose: Ensure the Responsiveness of Political Institutions

This article is based on a report, OUR COMMON PURPOSE, produced in June, 2020, by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In his New Yorker article of 11/16/20, Evan Osnos likened the report to the civic equivalent of the 9/11 Commission Report. It offers bipartisan recommendations in the form of six Strategies, with between two and eight recommendations per strategy.

Democracy, a healthy democracy, requires more from its citizens than a visit to the voting booth once every four years. In theory, citizens should vote out of a sense of duty. But that’s not enough. A healthy democracy and a citizenry that votes regularly requires a continuous reciprocity between citizens and their government. Every level of government. From the elected and appointed officials in the smallest Towns, the largest cities, the states and all the federal offices.

We call these elected and appointed officials, “our public servants”. And so they are. They are the workhorse of democracy. They rise to meet citizen expectations. But citizens must form expectations …. not once every four years, but every time they have an interaction with the postal worker, the dog catcher, the tax collector, the school superindent. We”re all in it together. Democracy depends on a VIRTUOUS CIRCLE, “a chain of events in which one desirable occurrence leads to another which further promotes the first occurrence and so on resulting in a continuous process of improvement.”


Ensure the Responsiveness of Government Institutions

This strategy includes the following four recommendations:

  1. Adopt formats, processes, and technologies that are designed to encourage widespread participation by residents in official public hearings and meetings at local and state levels.
  2. Design structured and engaging mechanisms for every member of Congress to interact directly and regularly with a random sample of their constituents in an informed and substantive conversation about policy areas under consideration.
  3. Promote experimentation with citizens’ assemblies to enable the public to interact directly with Congress as an institution on issues of Congress’s choosing.
  4. Expand the breadth of participatory opportunities at municipal and state levels for citizens to shape decision-making, budgeting, and other policy-making processes.

Participatory Budgeting is a great example.

Direct and substantive interaction between members of the public and their congressional representatives on specific issues will increase the responsiveness of that institution and its members to the will of the people. But participatory opportunities should also extend to all other levels of government and into the processes of government decision-making. Knowing that a community supports the building of a new park is just the first step in the long process of seeing that park opened to the public.

  • Where should the park be located?
  • Who will the park be designed to serve?
  • What other programs might need to be cut to pay for it?

Participatory budgeting, citizens’ juries, deliberative polling, the Citizens’ Initiative Review, and Dialogue to Change: all involve participatory processes that engage citizens in the giveand-take of government decision-making. (54)

Applied with intent, these processes can help strengthen the responsiveness of governments, energize state and local civic engagement, and bring new and underrepresented voices into the policy-making process. With participatory budgeting, for example, a portion of public spending is made directly by citizens. Although there is no universal template, participatory-budgeting processes typically include the following elements: citizens who represent the community and brainstorm ideas for possible funding projects; volunteers (either citizens or experts) who winnow the list of ideas to a set of feasible proposals; and citizens who vote on the best proposal, which the government or institution in question then funds.

In the United States, nearly five hundred thousand participants have allocated $280 million through participatory budgeting, and over three thousand cities around the world have allocated some portion of their budget through similar processes. (55)

After the 2012 school shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, tens of thousands of citizens participated in community dialogues around mental health issues. These dialogues had many beneficial effects. They prompted the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, for example, to provide $5 million in community grants in support of civic engagement and mental health first-aid training. They also prompted municipal governments, school systems, jails, and police departments around the country to create policies that deployed resources in line with citizen-established priorities. (56)

All of these processes contribute meaningfully to the deliberative practice of democracy. They impart long-term civic skills and habits; they facilitate communication between elected officials and their constituents; and they help citizens better understand what goes into governing. Governments should provide support to participants by engaging experts to impart best practices, assess the feasibility of proposals, and monitor projects once underway.

End of Strategy 3 recommendations.

To see the full report go to Our Common Purpose: Reinventing American Democracy for the 21st Century

Contact: bthornton@assetstewardship.com
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