As Citizens, We Are Duty-Bound to Make Government Better
- Citizens can choose among three pathways to reengage in civic life, revive their communities and improve their governments: 1) as civic activists, 2) as civic leaders and 3) as public officials
- Civic Activists – Every citizen can honor their civic duty by getting involved, and every community must recruit, mobilize and empower citizens to mount the continuing campaign for better government
- Civic Leaders – Any activist with the requisite passion and time can step up to lead grassroots efforts to make our local governments more responsive and our communities more competitive
- Public Officials – Leaders who secure appointed public positions or run for—and win—public office are in a unique position to improve public services and restore public trust, especially if they are well-prepared to meet the challenges
Too many of us take our citizenship for granted, especially those who did nothing to secure it. Unlike those of us born in the US, immigrants must take a citizenship test to gain legal residence and naturalized citizenship. This citizenship test, which strives to assess knowledge of American history, government and values, has a 91 percent pass rate for immigrants. In contrast, a 2018 survey found that only 36 percent of American citizens could pass a similar test. This is shameful.
In a representative democracy like ours, it is our duty to be informed, active citizens. Sure, we have other obligations. We have hobbies, recreational pursuits and other indulgences. Still, there is no excuse for our utter ignorance and neglect of civic affairs. When things go wrong, we can blame politicians, but we should not overlook our own complicity. How can we hold immigrants to a higher standard?
The good news is that our nation offers so many ways to make our voices heard. At any stage in our lives, we can do more. We can step out from our personal bubbles and into the civic arena, join others who share our ideals and achieve tangible change. As citizens, we can—and must—take responsibility for our communities, governments and democracy, and look beyond our individual needs to the greater good.
There are at least three pathways that we can take to make a difference:
- Civic Activists – Citizens who get active in civic affairs to help shape the future of their communities
- Civic Leaders – Activists with the passion, talent and time to lead community initiatives
- Public Officials – Leaders who want to run for public office or serve on a public body and, by doing so, help harness public assets for good and restore public faith in government
Every pathway offers opportunity to be exploited and risk to be navigated. And every person must choose the pathway best aligned with his or her aspirations, abilities and limits. Knowing as much as possible about each pathway’s promise and pitfalls can help guide that decision.
Becoming Civic Activists
Public opinion surveys reveal our growing disenchantment with government. We complain incessantly about politics and politicians. We fear that we are losing something that, once lost, cannot be recovered. We worry about our freedom, yet seem all too willing to take our marching orders from others.
At the very minimum, all citizens should devote time to civic affairs. They should compare different news sources. They should distinguish fact from opinion and think for themselves. They should stay abreast of their state and local governments and pressing community issues. They should register to vote, study the candidates and issues and vote every single time. Still, they should find ways to do even more.
One way is volunteering. Since Ben Franklin started the first volunteer firehouse and Jane Addams launched Hull House, our nation has enjoyed a rich history of volunteerism. Volunteers started many revered institutions—the American Red Cross, Salvation Army, United Way and YMCA. And even though Bureau of Labor Statistics data suggests a recent decline in US volunteerism (down from 29 percent of adults in 2005 to 25 percent in 2016), Americans typically volunteer more time than the citizens of most other developed nations.
Where and how do volunteers spend their time? Most work with only one organization, usually a religious, educational, social service or healthcare entity. The most common volunteer activities involve food distribution, fund-raising, tutoring and general labor. While government has occasionally sought to reignite volunteerism (e.g., Presidents Kennedy, Bush and Clinton), most volunteers help nonprofits, not government.
There are many barriers to citizen engagement in the public sector. One barrier is that, with the exception of public boards and commissions, most governments don’t offer a lot of ways for citizens to support their work. Many communities have failed to show how volunteerism could be leveraged to improve their local governments. Another barrier is that many of the community groups that once marshalled civic activists to track and reform local government have disappeared or withered in recent years.
We must find a way to get more citizens involved with improving their governments. Not just as members of boards and commissions, but as change agents. To do the heavy lifting of government reform. To help government see challenges, fix problems, own solutions and track performance. To watch, defend, challenge and exhort. To champion measures that will make government better.
How can this be done at the local level? Step One is to designate or create a local civic organization that will be the lead voice for good government in each community. Step Two is to arm these groups with the resources they need to recruit and mobilize citizens and empower their activists to make a difference.
Step One is organic. Every community must determine the best entity for leading its government watchdog and reform efforts. In some cases, an existing entity will fit the bill. In other cases, an enterprise will need to be created de novo. Once this occurs, however, it is vital that such local groups become part of a larger national network of like-minded groups. A national network is the single best way to ensure the sustainability of local groups by providing much-needed resources and support.
Step Two is about resources, but what kind? Smart data. Reliable analytics. Legal counsel. Fund-raising support. Back office assistance. But the most important resources will be digital tools that can be scaled to the needs of hundreds of local civic groups. Secure, web-based tools that help civic groups recruit and schedule volunteers. Easy-to-use tools that enable activists to connect, grasp vital civic issues, find proven solutions and track their elected officials. Armed with such tools, citizens could move from the side lines to the front lines of change.
Inspiring Civic Leaders
Leadership in a democracy demands many qualities, but honesty above all others. It is about telling our supporters the hard truths, what they need to hear, not what they want to hear. Not too long ago, America was blessed with such leadership.
Unfortunately, such leadership is in short supply these days, especially at the national level. To illustrate, instead of denouncing extremist rhetoric, shameful bigotry and insane conspiracies, the US House Minority Leader and US House GOP caucus applauded the Congresswoman from QAnon. Instead of treating the issue as one of conscience, GOP firebrands tried to demote one of their leaders, Rep. Liz Cheney, for supporting impeachment. As Senator Sasse asked, the GOP must decide whether it will be a party that defends “the Constitution” or one that entertains “conspiracy theories and cable-news fantasies.”
As individuals, most of us sense that we lack the means to change the political climate in Washington. However, we can do something about our communities and the local governments that serve us. If we cannot readily improve the quality of our national leadership, we certainly can influence the quality of our local leadership. And, while local affairs may not draw the media attention that national events receive, they can have a big impact on our daily lives.
Our most desirable and competitive communities differ in many ways, but they share one attribute—strong civic leadership. They are blessed with enlightened civic-minded leaders who share a bold vision for their communities and possess the will, passion, patience and collaborative spirit to achieve that vision. The problem is that, as we have delegated our democracy to loud, strident and moneyed national voices, we have all too frequently allowed our local leadership to atrophy.
It’s not that our local leaders are gone. They are all around us. Some are relatives, friends or neighbors. They run campaigns, initiatives and nonprofits, all dedicated to improving their communities or helping others. They listen to the outspoken and speak up for the voiceless. They feel some measure of responsibility for their communities. They inspire and lead the concerned among us. There just aren’t enough of them to do what it takes to hold our governments accountable and help our communities prosper.
How do we expand and strengthen civic leadership? There are many ways, but we should start with identifying those citizens with leadership potential, recruiting and developing those leaders and finding the best leadership opportunities for them. In short, we should invest in building and sustaining strong civic leadership, much like many communities do to modernize their hard infrastructure (think roads, schools and parks).
Effective civic leaders also need efficient tools for harnessing civic activists and other resources. They need tools that will help them forge a long-term vision, assess local strengths and weaknesses, find the best ideas for solving tough issues, deploy the best messages for securing a consensus, marshal local resources and monitor public officials. With tools that help them become more strategic, organized and efficient, civic leaders can help change their communities for the better.
Developing Public Officials
There are many opportunities for citizens who want to become public officials. Legislative or quasi-legislative offices—state legislature, city council, county commission and school board, for instance—afford an opportunity to influence policy, but without the burden of running a large bureaucracy. There are appointed positions, including board and commission seats, that offer a way to influence policy and an invaluable learning experience. There also are judicial and managerial positions that require certain qualifications.
To be a good public official, it helps to prepare. This is particularly important—and challenging—for elected positions. Elections are so demanding that they allow little time for preparation. At the end of the movie, The Candidate, the surprise winner of a US Senate race asks his campaign manager, “What do we do now?”
Running for office is hard. While the initial focus should rightly be on winning that race, governing poses a much tougher challenge. Winning a race for governor, mayor or county executive is initially exhilarating, but ultimately exhausting. Taming an unwieldy bureaucracy and changing policy cannot be done with good intentions alone.
Every civic activist and leader, when considering a race for public office, should be guided by two principles. First, don’t “wait your turn.” If you are ready to make the sacrifice and believe that you can make a difference (as a candidate or an official), take the plunge, even if a more experienced candidate is waiting in the wings. Second, if you win, don’t get too comfortable. Never allow the sycophants or trappings of the office convince you that you are indispensable. As Charles de Gaulle once said, “The graveyards are full of indispensable men.”
Governing is always challenging, but public executives rarely fail for being overly prepared. Those seeking public office, particularly executive offices like governor or mayor, must prepare. With proven tools, public executives can use the brief transition period to spot big fiscal, policy and management threats and opportunities, and chart a pragmatic course. They can hit the ground running, build a great team, avoid most missteps and govern with purpose. They can set a bold agenda, mobilize stakeholders and build a consensus and enduring legacy.
Breaking the Cycle
The cycle is entirely predictable. Find a candidate. Buy the candidate’s promises. Elect the candidate. Wait for the candidate to fulfill the promises and reform government. Patiently wait and watch. Make excuses. Get frustrated, then angry. Demonize politics. Rinse and repeat.
Google has many flaws. But, it has empowered the domestically inept among us to fix problems we long deferred to others, like an erratic appliance or leaky faucet. Google has essentially freed us from our own excuses, offering helpful videos on how to fix something we knew little about. Instead of deferring the problem, more of us are taking action to solve a problem we didn’t know we could solve.
We must apply the same mindset to government. Learn more. Reconnect with others. Reengage with our communities. Free ourselves from the manipulations of others—politicians, media outlets or experts. Take action, starting with a cause we care about, in our own communities. Do the work to make our government more agile, innovative and competitive. Save our communities from the virus of divisive, toxic politics.
We may not be able to solve every civic issue, but, by getting more engaged, we can make our communities better than we found them. We can use smart tools to learn more about solving the issues that threaten our community. We can join a civic group dedicated to improving our local governments. We can volunteer. We can build a local leadership program. We can run for office, serve on a board or lead a local nonprofit.
We can learn to think for ourselves and work with others … for a change.