I don’t like it. Nobody does.
But if you’re not the president of a big company or the head of a powerful union or single interest group or a bored billionaire, you don’t have much clout with our political system today.
That’s bad. Because in our representative democracy, the people are supposed to have a deciding voice instead of a small band of insiders.
That’s why for six years running the nonpartisan Center for Michigan has sponsored a series of community conversations all over the state. These are small citizen groups – 15 to 25 people – who meet in living rooms, libraries, schools. The conversations last around two hours. They consider the big topics affecting our state: schools, taxes, public spending, jobs and economic development. They’re led by trained facilitators and scribes who take down everybody’s comments and use clicker technology to capture directly people’s choices and priorities.
Opinions are data based by Public Sector Consultants, a Lansing-based firm, and form the basis for the Center’s published reports on the public’s agenda for Michigan’s future. The demography of conversation participants is carefully managed to make sure that the folks who take part look just like the face of Michigan in gender, age, race and residence. Over the years, nearly 30,000 Michiganders have been involved in these conversations, the largest public outreach campaign in Michigan history.
These discussions are not just idle chatter. Taken together, they make up the public’s agenda for our state’s future, which has a real impact on the attitudes of office holders and candidates. Four years ago, for example, every single candidate for governor came to the Center’s office asked for a detailed briefing on the attitudes of Michigan’s citizens. And these views had a substantial impact on the ways candidates framed political discourse in both the primary and the general election.
It’s going to be like that again this year, as the voters will choose in November our next governor and the members of the entire legislature. Right now, the Center is holding on-site in-person community conversations that will eventually involve more than 5,000 Michiganders. If you’d like to attend an in-person discussion, visit our Facebook page to find a discussion taking place near you.
But for some busy people, it’s not convenient to go to a location and take directly part in a face to face conversation. That’s why the Center is organizing web-based community conversations in which any Michigan citizen can easily participate whenever they want on our Online Community Conversation page over at thecenterformichigan.net.
What's even more interesting about the community conversations this year is that both candidates for governor – Republican incumbent Rick Snyder and Democratic challenger Mark Schauer – are endorsing and introducing them in special videos.
In a video recorded for the Center, Snyder said he’s “helping participate in community conversations to get people’s views about what we can do better” in Michigan. Schauer’s video said, “Your voice matters … to help set the agenda for 2014 and beyond.”
What’s interesting is that both candidates, opponents who will certainly be on different sides of the debate during the campaign, are coming together to endorse this nonpartisan process of citizen engagement.
Both Snyder and Schauer are saying that what really matters is to make Michigan a better place for all our citizens and that differences between them have to do with the particular policy means toward the overall shared end of a better state.
That’s important proof that both candidates recognize how fundamentally significant citizen views are in the political process. Community conversations are a new device to call forth the public agenda through a process that might be called “deliberative democracy”. It’s had an impact on the nuts and bolts of politics; I don’t remember two competing candidates for governor ever coming together to endorse a nonpartisan effort to call forth citizen viewpoints during an election.
So, don’t just take my advice. Take Governor Snyder’s or candidate Schauer’s. Participate in the web-based community conversations. Make your voice heard. And help make Michigan a better place.