Congress and Citizen Engagement

Earlier this week, the Pew Center’s survey on citizen trust in government shows trust in government has plummeted to record lows.  As if to support these findings, there were “gun rallies” in support of Second Amendment rights a few days ago.  And last week, there was a Tea Party rally demanding a smaller government. Last summer, there were angry town hall meetings across the country with members of Congress on health care reform. 

In parallel to this rise in grassroots citizen discontent with government is an active effort by President Obama to increase citizen engagement in their government.  His Open Government Initiative is beginning to take hold as agencies develop new initiatives and prepare detailed plans.  This Open Government trend is also being reflected at state and local levels.

And yesterday, it looks like Congress is taking notice.  The Congressional Management Foundation — a non-profit, non-partisan support group that helps individual members of Congress improve the management of their official offices – launched a new initiative to help Congress “listen to citizens and govern with their voices in mind.” 

It has created a Partnership for a More Perfect Union to “improve understanding through education, re-establishing trust, and providing innovative yet pragmatic tools to facilitate purposeful two-way communication.”  It will work not only with Congress but also with citizens and grassroots advocacy groups to “create meaningful civic engagement.”

This will include activities such as:

  • Serving as a repository for New Media research, training, and resources that will help both Congress and citizens communicate better on public policy issues.
  • Research and training on creating a “21st Century Town Hall” format that includes in-person, on-telephone, and on-line engagement.
  • Creating a mechanism, such as a code of conduct, that allows “participating grassroots practitioners to distinguish themselves as respected partners in the democratic dialogue.”
  • Continuing its sponsorship of the “Gold Mouse Award” Project to recognize congressional websites that provide a high degree of transparency and information.

Why is the Congressional Management Foundation doing this? In part, because of the nature of the political climate, but also because grassroots advocacy has grown so much in recent years because of the availability of technology. 

The Foundation found that “many congressional offices are suspicious of advocacy campaigns of identical form messages,” but the grassroots community argues “that the vast majority of communications are from constituents who perform a direction action.”  There is mistrust between the two that leads congressional staff to discount constituent messages, and this creates a gulf. 

This is then compounded in in-person town hall meetings where “there has been an alarming increase in incivility and dissatisfaction on the part of both Members and citizens,” with “meetings targeted by busloads of non-constituents with a goal of disrupting the meeting.”

The Partnership is pursuing a five-year agenda, beginning this year with a foundation of strong organizational development and several projects.  It will also recruit both staff and fellows, and partner with other organizations such as AmericaSpeaks and Fleishman-Hillard.  Next year, it will sponsor the first annual Conference on Effective Civic Dialogue.  My guess is that there will be lots of “lessons learned” from the upcoming congressional election campaigns!

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