Posted: December 12, 2012
It’s smart to stay involved in public policy
The work gets done between electionsBrenda Morrison
I recently attended a “town-hall meeting” meeting hosted by an elected official. It was sparsely attended, even though the topic, the “fiscal cliff” and health care, affect all Americans and certainly impact local business. The meeting consisted of a short presentation followed by a brief question and answer session. Unfortunately, there was only time for two actual questions, as the remaining few minutes were dominated by one cranky individual with his own agenda.
Town-hall meetings and Internet surveys are typically the tools that policymakers use to interact or engage with the public, yet the percentage of the public that participates in these civic experiences is very small. Some people will say they don’t have the time or interest to attend; others may feel that the decision has already been made and that the government is just going through the motions.
There is no denying that the public – and certainly Coloradans – were engaged in November’s presidential election. Unfortunately, interest in public policy declines drastically between elections, yet that is when the real work is done; regulations and rules are shaped and implemented, new statutes are created, and issues are debated. These processes occur in local city halls, the state capitol, and of course in Congress in the days and months between elections, and it is critical that individuals, organizations, and businesses remain engaged in the issues and the process even after the election has come and gone.
Often it is assumed that lobbying is the only way to be involved with public policy decision-making, when in fact there are many tools available to help bridge the gap between people and public policy, including ways to turn ideas into actionable and meaningful public policy. Here are a few examples:
The Backseat Budgeter is an interactive, web-based simulation that allows Coloradans to become more familiar with the state budget. Users may click on a variety of spending and revenue topics such as transportation, K-12 education, and corrections; learn about the issues; and explore the options. Users experience similar budget challenges that face legislators as they prepare a balanced budget, including the possibilities that some of their choices may violate the state constitution. In addition to the State of Colorado, users can also “drive” both the City/County of Denver and El Paso County budgets, and the tool is readily adaptable to demonstrate other budgets.
Earlier this year, Gov. John Hickenlooper embarked on the most comprehensive effort in state history to involve Coloradans in learning, discussing and making recommendations on critical issues facing the state through his TBD Colorado initiative. The goal of this initiative was to gather input from state residents on topics such as health care, maintaining the state’s roads and bridges, and higher education.
More than 70 face-to-face meetings took place around the state, but these were no ordinary meetings, as TBD Colorado was a combination of a high-tech, high touch approach. Participants were given ample opportunity to converse, but everyone had the opportunity to have their voice heard, as all participants were given hand-held devices that allowed them to vote on an issue being presented to the group in real-time. By using the Backseat Budgeter, individuals could see for themselves the impact of certain public policy decisions, such as how much it would cost the state to provide all-day kindergarten for all Colorado children, or how much it would save the state to privatize a major research university.
Even though the TBD Colorado program has ended, there are still ample opportunities to attend town hall meetings, city council meetings, legislative hearings and other community session where attendees can often experience the political process first-hand.
For individuals who are comfortable conversing with others about public policy online and get most of their news from social media, there are several sites and applications that can help people become more engaged in public policy. For example, Watch Think Vote is a unique Facebook application that allows the integration of Facebook friendly video and surveys that educate the user. Watch Think Vote is unusual because it demonstrates to the users the points of agreement and disagreement, possibly showing unexpected areas of agreement.
One On One Engagement With Policymakers
Of course, none of this replaces good old-fashioned one-on-one experiences with lawmakers. Certainly lawmakers on the local and state levels are very accessible, and even national policymakers are just a call or click away. A couple of common-sense tips for getting some face time include:
- Follow elected officials on social media as they often they announce their schedule via Twitter and Facebook.
- Compliment via phone, email, or a hand-written note when your elected official does something you approve of, rather than just reaching out when you have a criticism.
- Expose yourself to the governmental process by attending a city council meeting or legislative hearing. The different branches of government have different processes and rules. Many elected officials or their aides enjoy teaching, so don’t be afraid to ask questions.
- Vote in all elections even when there is nothing sexy on the ballot.
In addition to keeping you better apprised of policy changes that can impact your business, your community or your family, those who are most engaged often have a bigger impact on policy decisions because they are weighing in with their opinions when others are not.
Brenda Morrison is a partner at Engaged Public, a Denver-based public policy strategy firm providing public policy development, leadership development, public engagement, dialogue facilitation and episodic facilitation services. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.