Voting vs. civic participation | elections vs. governance
The Washington Post has a piece, "Most young people don't vote: Condescending to them isn't helping," on various attempts to try to get younger people, who statistically don't vote in great numbers, to vote in national elections.
Interestingly, this follows by a couple days a story on Manassas Park, Virginia, where two of the five seats up for election to City Council have no one running, and another seat has a candidate running unopposed. WRT the latter, the Post chalks this up to "civic apathy" ("In the heat of election season, political apathy in small Virginia city").
Recognizing that yes, people often don't take the time to get involved in local civic affairs, let alone regional, state, or national politics (let alone international affairs, such as the United Nations), I have always gotten angry at various initiatives focused on and complaints about "civic apathy" because I think they are people-blaming and not focused on how the political and governance system is dis-engaging, not to mention that civic education and involvement is weak and to build involvement people need to be engaged, be it through class projects, community involvement projects (like what Eagle Scouts have to do), community organizations, school groups, etc.
There are costs and barriers to being engaged. But it's complicated by long working hours, family responsibilities, falling incomes leading people to take second jobs, people working in different places from where they live, leading to long commutes and bifurcated interests, etc.
Other hindrances include the fact that many existing organizations tend to be unwelcoming of new participants, it takes a long time to see progress on a project or issue, etc. I think about projects I've been involved in that have taken 10 to 15 years to come to fruition. The Metropolitan Branch Trail bikeway was first conceptualized in 1989--it will take 5 to 10 more years for it to be finished...
Election day as a national holiday vs. voter suppression. Eliminating hindrances to voting would increase turnout. Were election day a national holiday, as it is in many other countries, more people would vote. If the Republicans weren't so focused on suppressing voting, but getting people involved and encouraging people to vote, more people would vote ("Deadlocked SCOTUS Won't Revive N.C. Voter Suppression Law," New York Magazine and "Voting Rights Are Under Attack from Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach," Esquire) etc.
-- Voter Participation Project
But there is the issue of elections being about electing people. And people in office more focused on fundraising for their next campaign. And ideological positions shaping governance or an unwillingness to address important matters.
Just because you vote doesn't mean that you can improve society.
The long campaign as "too much information" and an element of disconnection. Plus, the national process is so long. I envy the British or Canadians who wrap up elections in a process shorter than three months ("Canada Reminds Us That American Elections Are Much Longer," NPR).
Newspapers and media. With the decline in the number of newspapers and people reading newspapers a key element of civic engagement--information and knowledge development--has been broken. See "The ongoing tragedy of dying print media, the latest being community newspapers in Montgomery and Prince George's Counties, Maryland."
While it's true that it can be difficult in making local issues arresting in a 3 minute report, tv news is mostly a non-starter as a substitute for newspapers as it mostly focuses on reporting crimes, accidents, some sports, fires, the weather and other natural disasters.
(Nationally, shows like "60 Minutes" on CBS and "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel" on HBO do have public affairs elements. And C-SPAN, a cable network focused on Congress, does have some broader public affairs type programming on weekends.)
Note that I have been meaning to write about some of the PBS station groups and their creation of some local news programs, but usually such programs have a state-wide focus.
For example, Maryland Public Television produces "State Circle" on state politics, and "Maryland Outdoors," on agriculture, recreation, and outdoors matter. The Idea Stations in Richmond produce "Virginia Currents," a program on various topics within the state. Note that Northern Virginia is undercovered because its public television station positions itself as a "national" station, rather than being locally focused or connected.
In the old days, for profit television stations used to produce similar kinds of "long form" programming on local civic affairs, but it's very rare now. Interestingly, the NBC station in San Francisco has that kind of program, but on the outdoors, "OpenRoad With Doug McConnell | NBC Bay Area."
Public radio. While for profit radio is no different than for profit television in terms of no longer providing much in the way of significant reporting on deeper issues, local affiliates of public radio have often stepped in the breach. For example, in the DC region, WAMU, owned by American University, is doing serious enterprise reporting these days and its coverage of the area transit system is innovative and fills a real gap. This complements its various local programs, such as the "Kojo Nnamdi Show." Most of the NPR affiliates in major cities and those affiliated with universities operate similarly robust news and community reporting operations.
Public television. While they aren't likely to produce much in the way of on-air news programming, some PBS stations, especially in California markets like San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, have created robust news operations that operate via the web.
Also some PBS stations, on supplementary digital channels, run gardening and other programming, such as from the Create network, that has some civic affairs elements, although the programs are not locally focused.
-- Public Broadcasting and Public Affairs: Opportunities and challenges for public broadcasting’s role in provisioning the public with news and public affairs, Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University
Communicating Effectively in English (1992), by Patricia A. Porter and Margaret Grant, then of San Francisco State University.
Teaching people how to be productively involved in their community. In college I used to say that it was unreasonable, after 13 to 17 years of being talked at in school settings that are relatively authoritarian, upon graduation, to expect people to become active, free-thinking, participating members of society.
From time to time I mention a book I came across because it was used in ESL classes.
It shocked me because it teaches English through teaching people how to get involved on issues in their community.
Just as there are frequent articles about how naturalized citizens have to take a test on US government that the average natural-born citizen may not be able pass, I think that expecting people to be engaged on civic matters when for the most part we are taught to be quiet and to accept what we're told is a major disconnect.
I don't envy the non-native English speakers who are assigned this text. It's a great book but it's written at the high school level, or beyond. The preface is written for teachers, not students.This textbook looks like a basic text in citizenship-involvement--it teaches communications skills through participation in civil society. It's really quite interesting and amazing and worth your looking up.
The units are:
1. Understanding your audience and being understood
2. Getting Information: Interviews and Conferences
3. Providing Information: Instructions and Demonstrations
4. Providing Information: Group Discussions and Presentations
5. Proposing Changes: Solving a Problem
6. Persuading Others: Taking a Position.
From the preface:
In the first three units, students work with information that is known to them or learned through interviews. In the last three units, students must work with information from more challenging outside sources, such as articles and reference materials in the library. The first four units focus on informative presentations, while the last two include expanded guidelines and practice in argumentation.Having a course like that in high school, with various projects, seems like a useful step. (I never had such a course. It wasn't until college when I started getting involved in "student organizations" and then city matters.)
Process and design method. Similarly, I am somewhat skeptical of digitally-enabled involvement techniques ("All the talk of e-government, digital government, and open source government is really about employing the design method") because most of the time, they aren't set up to allow people to question the process, or set up their own questions, or lay out different directions for inquiry. It's a different method, but the process isn't different.
Robust civic engagement processes. There is an almost 50 year old planning journal article, "A Ladder of Citizen Participation," >Journal of the American Institute of Planners, 35: 4, July 1969," by Sherry Arnstein on this topic but since then many more processes for more involved and substantive methods for civic engagement have been developed. Not to mention the points made in the article about true engagement are mostly ignored even today.
Unfortunately, a lot of people aren't interested, and many of the people who are end up being self-interested. It took me a couple decades of involvement to recognize and accept that for the most part, elected officials and engaged residents, aren't in Erikson's "generativity phase." Instead they only care about the now. Therefore, decisions are rarely made with an eye towards building a better society for tomorrow. Instead they are more about stasis and warding off change as much as possible.
Friedmann. John Friedmann's work on "planning in the public domain" focuses on how to do more "radical" planning in the context of relatively fixed government agencies and processes.
Friedmann differentiates between system maintenance, system change, and system transformation.
Maintenance is about bureaucracy and keeping things as they are. Transformation is about challenging the way things are, by working through political means. But ultimately, all change is about maintaining the political system, which occurs through the integration of change into existing institutions. At first proposals are radical but get bounded and mediated in the process of getting adopted. In the end, radical becomes bureaucratic.
Action planning. From my disgust with groups like America Speaks (see "Can't seem to face up to the facts... or citizens/public meetings as 'arm candy'") comes what I call the Action Planning approach. This entry, "Social Marketing the Arlington (and Tower Hamlets and Baltimore) way," discusses the approach, although the idea continues to be further developed.
But I have to admit that the Action Planning approach has a fatal flaw too. It expects that everyone comes to the table with a basic consensus on some foundational processes:
- that public participation is a good thing
- that democracy is to be respected
- that participants also have a responsibility to learn and be knowledgeable about the matters at hand
- that it will take some time
- and that people will have to make some compromises.
I guess another lesson from this is that for the most part, zoning and planning processes and the rights involved with property ownership mean that development will happen. So it's best to shape that development in ways where all the stakeholders benefit to the greatest extent possible.
But action planning won't work when people don't come to the process with a commitment to that basic value set.
And it doesn't work very well when people have pretty mediocre expectations, or can be mollified pretty easily with bullshit and scraps or armed with the idea that all new development and developers themselves are no better than criminals.
1. Fix civic engagement systems
2. Teach civic engagement starting in the schools
3. Because if people aren't involved in their neighborhoods, public institutions, and communities to begin with, it's a big step to expect them to vote
4. Support locally-focused media
5. Make national election day a national holiday.
6. End voter suppression initiatives.