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Commentary: Public Listenings – Increasing Civic Engagement

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During the 2016 election, a presidential election year, just over 55% percent of the eligible electorate voted in the United States. When ranked amongst the 35 member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), we placed 26th for voter turn out. In my opinion, that is pretty low.

As I read between the lines, I can’t help but think that much of the reason that we have such low turn-out, stems from the fact that those who don’t regularly vote feel disconnected, unrepresented, inconsequential and distrusting of government.

Among those who don’t vote, I hear that they feel like the candidates that are on the ballots don’t represent them; that the ballot measures don’t reflect their values; and, their voices and votes don’t matter.

Specific reasons range. There is the notion that politicians are self-serving and beholden to big money more than to the American people. Some non-voters pine for other options than the Democratic and Republican parties, citing that our bi-partisan system has led to the prevailing parties to become polarizing, and too out of touch with Americans. These people also find that the issues get amassed into party platforms, when they really need to be treated separately and with more nuance. Others reason that their vote is inconsequential and drowned out, and the government is too big and immutable.

There are plenty more reasons that I have not mentioned. Yet, the underlying sentiment is the same.
Apathetic voters are saying they don’t feel heard, valued, seen, appreciated, and able to meaningfully have a say in what are important issues to them, how their tax dollars are spent, and the way they are governed.

At some level, I get it. After going to the voting booth, calling my representatives, attending city council and town hall meetings, and trying to participate in county commissioner and other hearings, I usually feel frustration and futility around my voice being heard and respected, never mind represented.

When I go to public hearings on matters of local import, the set up of the meetings is such that what are supposed to be representatives of the people are more like the judge and jury – deciding how and if they answer questions, and how they want to weigh what is said. The very choice of words regarding these meetings says a lot, “Public hearing.” At any hearing, those who are on the podium direct the conversation, and not necessarily in accountable or democratic ways. As they take in information and make decisions, they usually carry their own filters, and address the loudest voices – special interests and/or financial contributors.

While the intentions of politicians and bureaucrats may be good, in my opinion, their accountability to ALL their constituents is not as tight as it could be, nor is their willingness to give up control.

I posit that if we changed the way voters would get heard and politics is run, we would have a much more engaged electorate.

I would like to propose a radical idea, and that is to transfer the power of decision making for non-security, environmental and infrastructure purposes to the electorate, using practices of engaging and empowering constituents to name the challenges their communities actually face, prioritize the what they want solved, and figure out how to solve problems using the resources that are already available to their community and the ones that they may garner from private and public partnerships.

This would not be too different from the restorative justice conferences that are increasingly being used in the criminal justice system and for school discipline. During those, those who have created harm by breaking a rule or law, those who have been harmed, and representatives of the community are brought together to work out the best way to repair the harms and move forward. There are many benefits to this method. The top most being its effectiveness in finding a resolution and reducing the chances of a recurrence of harmful action by the person who broke a rule or law and consequently damaged relationship. The next being that the “victims” have their questions answered and a say in the how the harm is repaired. Finally, those who participate have a greater sense of engagement. They go from feeling disenfranchised to feeling that they are valued members of their communities. Restorative justice is so effective there is only a 10% recidivism rate for those going through a restorative justice conference, as compared to a 70% recidivism rate for those who go through the judicial hearing process.

A restorative justice like process, one that relies on the principals of restorative practices (relationship, respect, responsibility, repair and reintegration) is used in the state of Vermont. There, voter turn out in 2016 was almost 70 %, about 15% higher than the national average. The Vermont Countil on Rural Development (VCRD) goes into distressed communities, gives all members of the community the opportunity to name and prioritize goals, identify their trusted leaders, catalogue underutilized resources and partnership opportunities, and come up with plans to develop their communities. VRDC is pretty successful in accomplishing it’s mission: “to foster community and build local capacity.” After going through the process, the communities are revitalized and citizens feel more empowered and civically engaged.

Using a process that is restoratively focused, like restorative justice or the VRDC facilitated process, would take a mind set shift. This is a shift that would move us from public hearings, where the control remains in the hands of a select few, to public listenings where engagement, responsibility and solutions are embarked by many. I surmise that the results of the latter would be pretty powerful in getting sustainable solutions and a more engaged population. I would love to hear your thoughts.

Jessica Dancingheart is a personal and organizational consultant. Find out more at www.openingtopossibilities.com.