Adding your voice to Michigan’s future

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

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.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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William C. Plumpe
Tue, 02/25/2014 - 9:07am
Let's see here. Lots of things but let me try to focus on just four. 1) Don't raise taxes. That may seem like a no brainer especially in an election year but for me it's a more middle of the road position than "cut taxes" which is sure to get voter attention but is a lot more difficult and contentious to implement. I always like the path of least or at best reduced resistance. 2) Fix the roads. Fix the roads. Fix the roads. That may seem like 3 things but it is that important. It fixes aging infrastructure, provides much needed jobs and no doubt makes the Michigan economy better in the long run because cars and trucks are able to travel faster and with less damage. And some of the worst winter's potholes are so bad I'd be careful because something big and furry that ate fenders just might be living in the biggest ones. 3) Fix Detroit's finances and keep them that way. But also treat everyone involved as fairly and humanely as possible while making sure that the guilty pay and the innocent aren't punished, scapegoated or bullied. And if the art must be sold then sell the art. 4) Try desperately to learn just how to be bipartisan. I know it is tough but the time for rankling and spite, posturing and politics is over and done with. I'm not saying everything should be sweetness and light and unicorns and rainbows but let's try to move more towards a British parliament type "noble opposition" attitude and try to be more cooperative and democratic. And remember Governor Milliken, Senator Phil Hart and President Gerald Ford. There is hope. Enough said.
Fri, 02/28/2014 - 9:34am
It seems Mr. Power is describing the Bridge supported Community Conversation. The topics are established, Bridge has decided how it will filter comments before hearing the commemnts and before presenting their results in Lansing. This seems to make what the participants say nothing more than chatter. If Mr. Power were interested in changing the conversation, drawing in the public to create new and innovative approaches to the lingering problems of Michigan the Community Conversation would not end once the staff has collected their multiple choice questionaires. Community Conversation would open the gate to a path to public engagement and participation, even ownership of change in Michigan. I would encourage Bridge and the staff to look at why the public seems so disengaged and ineffectual in addressing our problems, how they are excluded from the process, how organization simply look to manipulate them so those organziations can claim public support when all they are doing is presenting the views of organizations managers. The Community Conversation could be that first step to draw the public into the conversation, to involve the public as a resource for ideas and innovation, owners of change in Michigan. However, that would mean that the Bridge would have to be willing to relinquish control of the outcomes/recommendations/ideas the public would create. To do this there would have to be a trust in the collective intellect of the public, there would have to be willingess and ability to listen, there would have to be a willingness to support change. I strongly believe Bridge is opening up the conversation in Michigan, that COmmunity Conversation can be a powerful tool with great potential. However, I wonder if it to mired in trying to change the past and not looking toward the Michigan community of the future. Is Community conversation more about trying to give comparable weight to the public in the way that organization had in the past rather than seeing how the public has changed and trying engage that change.