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May 10, 2006

a 10-point plan for civic renewal

Major trends have worked against civic participation in America, although a network of dedicated people has struggled to improve our civic life. Fortunately, new national political leaders will emerge between 2006 and 2008. We can hope that at least one of them makes "empowerment" a leading theme in his or her campaign. Or perhaps candidates will speak of "true democracy at home and abroad." Or they could revive populism, along the lines Harry Boyte proposed here on Monday. In any case, the big message would go something like this:

American citizens have been pushed out of all our major institutions--the government, schools, health care, environmental protection, crime prevention, city planning, and the news media. That's partly because lobbyists and other rich people have bought too much power. Sometimes it's because courts and bureaucracies have made decisions that should be left to communities. Often it's because experts claim too much authority. Although we should respect the expertise of lawyers, economists, regulators, and professional educators, these people don't know right from wrong better than anyone else. Nor do they understand everyone's needs and experiences. We must find ways to tap the energy, creativity, and values of many more Americans if we are going to address our communities' problems.

To be credible, any such message must be backed up with reasonably specific policy proposals. Appropriate policies might include the following:

1. Putting communities back in control of education. Whole communities educate kids, not just the professionals who work in k-12 schools. Although the No Child Left Behind Act has some merits, it is making standardized tests all-important, thus empowering the testing industry and preventing communities from deciding what they value most. Often, people prize moral and civic education as well as, or above, reading and math scores. The Act needs to be revised so that a core of reading, math, and language-arts remains, yet communities can set other priorities and participate in educating their children.

2. Reforming Congress to check the power of professional lobbyists. Although basic ethics rules are important and must be enforced, the core problem is that lawmaking is not transparent. Therefore, well-placed insiders can obtain too much power. Dramatically simplifying the tax code on a revenue-neutral basis would reduce opportunities for special interests to seek special breaks. (The current code is about 10,000 pages long and generates about 4,000 pages of forms.) Congress should also create a bipartisan commission to simplify and regularize the Code of Federal Regulations, which is about 150,000 pages long.

3. A national service agenda. Instead of cutting or trimming the federal voluntary service programs (Americorps, Senior Corps, Peace Corps, and others), Congress should expand their funding while keeping them competitive and demanding evidence of results from grantees. The next president should also name a highly respected and famous director for USA Freedom Corps who will not only seek adequate funding for all the service programs, but also fight to give responsible, meaningful roles to volunteers. FEMA, the Defense Department, and all agencies should use talented and experienced volunteers to their maximum capacities.

4. Preparing a new generation of active and responsible citizens. People form attitudes and habits related to civil society when they are young and keep them for the rest of their lives. But civic education has been cut in most school systems, and there are too few opportunities for young people to learn through service and extracurricular activities. Congress should double the small Learn & Serve America program that provides competitive grants for service-learning. Congress should also preserve the Education for Democracy Act (slated for elimination in each of President Bush's budgets) and add a new competitive program for school districts that agree to implement district-wide civics programs and collect outcome data. The next president should name an interagency task force on youth civic development that includes the Defense Department, Homeland Security, and the federal research agencies as well as the departments specifically concerned with education and service.

5. Rethinking government service. According to the Partnership for National Service, we would need about 800,000 new federal employees to replace those who are eligible to retire before 2010. Even if we assume that the federal workforce can be cut deeply, we still need about half a million recruits. Many younger people do not view the federal civil service as a desirable lifelong career. To meet the desires of college students as documented in a recent poll, we must create federal jobs that feel less bureaucratic and more interesting. (Raising pay is much less important.) This requires a new round of "reinventing government." This time, the goal of reinvention should not be to improve customer service but to find ways to make stints in the civil service feel more creative, collaborative, and rewarding.

6. Charter schools: The charter-school movement is not a Trojan Horse designed to undermine public education. Charters are public schools--funded with tax dollars and authorized by the government. In fact, they stand to rejuvenate public education by giving more people opportunities to serve and innovate in the public sector. If there is any way to create the equivalent of charters in other areas of federal governance, that would be worth an experiment. An example might be community development corporations (CDC's) that can manage development assistance.

7. A public voice in policymaking. Hurricane Katrina showed that the federal government is not ready to convene citizens to deliberate when we face crucial public decisions. Yet we know how to bring diverse citizens together in face-to-face and online settings and harvest their views. The federal government should create an infrastructure that is ready to organize public deliberations when needed. This infrastructure would consist of: standards for fair and open public deliberations, a federal office that could coordinate many simultaneous forums and collect all their findings, and a list of vetted contractors that would be eligible to convene public deliberations with federal grants.

The Wyden-Hatch "Health Care that Works for All Americans Act" would organize large-scale public deliberations on what to do about the 41 million Americans who lack health insurance. It would be a great pilot for future conversations on other issues.

8. Increase public deliberation through e-rulemaking. Only paid experts can possibly follow the thousands of new federal regulations that are proposed and enacted each year. That means that special interests that can afford expertise have a huge advantage, and many actual regulations benefit them alone. Proposed regulations should be issued in a searchable online format with threaded comments, opportunities to vote on the importance of proposals, and opportunities to add links and explanations. Then citizens will sort through this mass of material and add value.

9. New public media. Without government help, citizens are creating more diverse and interactive forms of media--mostly online--to counteract the consolidation of the commercial news and entertainment businesses. But there are big holes that require federal attention. First, radio has dramatically consolidated. The FCC must support alternatives, including low-power radio. Second, it is increasingly difficult for people to make fair use of copyrighted media in documentaries, hip-hop, and other cultural forms that rely on borrowing. Congress must protect fair use. Third, most kids aren't learning sophisticated media skills. They must have opportunities to work with media in schools. Television is hardest to improve, but the next president should at least appoint leaders of public broadcasting who are willing to create an entirely new model to replace the current system of using membership drives and corporate advertising to support marginal programs.

10. Incorporate immigrants into civic life: The many millions of new immigrants need civic skills and opportunities. The INS citizenship exam should be revised so that it is not longer a set of trivia questions but instead tests the knowledge that new citizens will actually need to participate. Immigrants, legal or illegal, should have access to education and service opportunities.

Posted by peterlevine at May 10, 2006 07:38 AM


Did you see the article in "Perspectives" on civic participation and its educational effects? There were two different types of cases that were followed. The first type was "Americorp"-like, making a difference simply by showing up and taking part. The second type of participation though, was more combatitive in that it was pushing for changes in governmental institutions that seemed inneffectual or unjust in the eyes of the students. This second group met resistance and were beaten, but I would suggest that this is in some ways the most valuable experience for the democratic citizne to have. To learn one's own ability to exercise "revolutionary spirit" seems to be something that is not necessarily on your list, and I think that the article supports what theorists like Arendt and Wolin would say about the importance to make space not just for infrastructural maintenance, but to keep the spirit of radical democracy alive even when it is being contained out of institutional necessity.

Posted by: Steven Maloney [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 10, 2006 02:19 PM

From Heather Dolphin, by email:

Related to the last point of your ten points toward civic renewal:

It seems that this this blog is an opportunity for me to alert someone who may have influence about my concerns related to human trafficking and the citizenship exam. I have been wondering how I can make a plea that the citizenship exam eliminate the questions about whether a person has been a prostitute. I don't have a problem including the ones about whether a person has solicited a prostitute, but many prostitutes, particularly immigrants in this country are survivors of human trafficking in which they are forced into prostitution. Answering yes to that question in that case is not a blight on that person's moral character. In some cases it demonstrates the cost some people have paid to live in this democracy.

Thank you for this opportunity to voice my concerns.

Posted by: Peter Levine [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 10, 2006 06:06 PM

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