In her provocative new book, The Nature of the Future, Marina Gorbis of Palo Alto’s Institute for the Future, outlines her vision for what life will look like in the coming decades. About government, to borrow a phrase, Gorbis has seen the future, and it’s highly participatory. In the chapter titled, “Governance Beyond Government,” Gorbis traverses the globe from San Ramon, California to Christchurch, New Zealand to illustrate how technology and new participation structures are fundamentally changing the citizen/government relationship. She concludes the chapter breathlessly, “In the New Agora, we take back our citizenship – the right and the privilege to decide how we govern ourselves. These fundamental rights and privileges are not outsourced to elites but are the purview of every citizen. By taking back our citizenship, we once again become ‘we the people.’”

We may not be living in a “New Agora” era, but a comprehensive new study of California government and civic officials reveals that greater civic participation is indeed happening here. “Testing the Waters” is the product of surveys and interviews with over 900 California public sector leaders (elected and staff) undertaken by the policy survey firm Public Agenda, coordinated by the Institute for Local Government and the Davenport Institute at Pepperdine’s School of Public Policy (where I work). The James Irvine Foundation underwrote the report, which both highlights a trend towards more participatory government, and raises several issues to consider:

  1. A Trend in the Making: With the survey respondents averaging over two decades of public sector experience, it is significant that 85 percent noted that “their views of public engagement have changed since their careers began” with 42 percent saying that these views “have changed a lot.” These findings confirm much of what I’ve seen around California and the country. Attend most any local government conference – from the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) to the National League of Cities (NLC) – and you’ll see significant content on how to better use both processes and technology to engage residents. As one Southern California city manager offered in one of the focus groups, “I have a greater appreciation for the value of public input. It provides a greater range of problem-solving ideas and creates better consensus for decisions.”
  2. Right Time/Place: While support for and use of deeper public decision-making processes is on the rise, California officials left little doubt as to when and how these should be employed. Ninety-two percent of those surveyed saw the value of public engagement on issues that involve “fundamental choices about the future of the community” (like budgets and land use), and 85 percent would use a public process to help solve issues that “require making tough choices or trade-offs.” On the flipside, only 35% would engage residents on issues “that already have clear-cut public support”, and less than a quarter of respondents (24 percent) believe deeper public engagement “is useful for decisions that require immediate action.” The theme is to get residents involved on the tough decisions, early.
  3. “Public Comment” is Neither Public, nor a Source of Helpful Comments: As I have written elsewhere, one irony of most of our “public comment” processes is that they tend to draw focused special interests to a “3-minute at the microphone” platform that prevents dialogue between the public and government leaders. Seventy-six percent of respondents said “that public meetings are typically dominated by people with narrow agendas,” and 40 percent “believe that typical public hearings and meetings do not help ordinary residents become more realistic about the tradeoffs and choices facing local government.”  In focus groups, some California public sector officials allowed that they have been part of the problem. One Bay Area city manager submitted, “We have done things that have caused mistrust. Often we go to the community, we put a group of experts in the front of the room, we talk at the residents for 40 minutes, and then we say, ‘What do you think?’ That’s not civic engagement.”
  4. Maybe “Gov 1.5”, but Not Yet “Gov 2.0”: While almost all of the respondents used email and the government website to communicate with the public, only 22 percent said they used social media “a lot” to engage residents, and only 12 percent have used an online public engagement platform (UserVoice, MindMixer, Crowdbrite, etc) to involve the public on a local policy decision. And even though 20 percent of respondents find that Twitter and Facebook have “vastly improved their relationships with and connections to the public,” more than three times that percentage (62 percent) answer that “it is difficult to gauge how effective these methods are for reaching the public.”

The “Recommendations” section of these reports are chock full of solid ideas for public sector and civic sector leaders who are looking for ways to improve public engagement processes – from better training to networking. But the larger point should not be missed: with an ongoing fiscal crisis, and ever more expensive land use decisions in the balance, intentional public engagement in policy-making is not just a goal for the future, it is happening right now in governments across the state, and around the country.