I’ve been traveling around the state recently, speaking to various community groups and service clubs. As usual, when I get in a room with Michiganders, I learn a ton by asking questions:
How many are satisfied with the present state of politics in Michigan? How about in the country?
(Zero hands go up.)
How many feel you have much influence on either political party or on public policy?
(At most, one or two hands go up.)
How many feel special interests have favored access to the political system, often oiled by big contributions?
(Nearly all hands shoot up.)
How many are troubled by all the “dark money” – large, unreported and anonymous political contributions – sloshing around these days?
(Once again, nearly everybody.)
How many are troubled at very high levels of partisanship, which often results in policy gridlock?
You don’t have to listen to some speech of mine to have strong opinions about public trust in government and politics.
If nothing else, the Flint drinking water debacle offers in the starkest possible terms just why so many voters – on the right, the left, in the center – are angry with government at all levels.
They are disgusted with the bureaucrats who prefer to hide behind “regulatory compliance,” and dismissive of politicians who tolerate such betrayals of common sense – not to mention the regular and disgraceful attempts by all sides to blame somebody, anybody else for wholesale screw-ups.
Maybe the election this fall will cleanse our wounded trust in government, although somehow I doubt it. Before the campaign rhetoric reaches deafening levels, I think it’s enormously important that ordinary citizens have access to an easy, transparent way to express their feelings about our political system so their views can also become part of this year’s election dialogue.
That’s why the Center for Michigan’s public engagement campaign this year is aimed at soliciting citizen feedback about trust in government and the political system.
Starting this week and continuing throughout the year, the Center will be holding “community conversations” all around Michigan aimed at unearthing and expressing citizen attitudes.
Although I expect there will be plenty of griping (to put it mildly), we’re also going to try to tease out citizen ideas about how we can improve our politics and better provide competent government services to people who need and expect them.
“Restoring Trust in Michigan’s State Government” marks the seventh round of statewide conversations facilitated by the Center. This year, we’ll aim at bringing together 3,000 Michigan residents to express their opinions. Since 2007, the Center (a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization) has engaged more than 40,000 Michigan citizens in this continuing outreach campaign, the largest public engagement campaign in Michigan history.
If the history of these conversations is any guide, what people say won’t be just idle chatter, either. The record shows clearly that community conversations over the past several years played a vital role in stimulating state government to more than double state support for the Great Start Readiness Program, the state’s pre-K effort aimed at helping poor and vulnerable four year-olds succeed in school. Other achievements include reducing state spending on prisons by $250,000, toughening teacher certification requirements and developing a fair and objective system for schools and parents to evaluate teacher effectiveness.
If democracy is to mean anything at all, it has to mean engaged citizens sharing their ideas in mutually respectful and nonpartisan discussions can have a big role in developing and carrying out public policy. Looked at in this way, the objective of this citizen engagement program is to help bottom-up, citizen-driven democracy overcome an increasingly polarized, ineffective and nonresponsive political system that too often masquerades as “democracy.”
The Center is looking for community leaders who can bring together 20-50 local citizens for these critically important conversations. If anyone who reads this column is interested in learning more about how to host a community conversation, please call the Center for Michigan at 734.926.4285 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you are unable to host a conversation but are interested in finding a way to make your views count by participating, I suggest you visit the Center’s Community Conversation calendar on our website to find a gathering near you.
Either way, you’ll be doing your part by starting the process of once again working to make a stand-up case for increasing public trust in an increasingly untrustworthy political system.