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November 12, 2009

what has no lobby

On the campaign trail, Barack Obama said that "active citizenship" would "be a central cause of my presidency." To make that promise a reality, the administration and other players will have to implement an ambitious reform agenda. A preliminary outline of the necessary reforms is contained in the Strengthening Our Nation's Democracy (II) report. That's a coalition document and I don't agree with every word, but I enthusiastically endorse the whole approach.

If you work through that list of reforms, you will find that none has an adequately powerful lobby behind it, but some ideas are better supported than others. Some reform proposals are on the agendas of organized advocacy groups; others fall through the cracks entirely.

One aspect of reform is improving opportunities for Americans--of all ages--to participate in public planning, rulemaking, and administration. The president laid out an agenda for this purpose very capably on his first day in office, when he signed an "Executive Order on Transparency, Participation, and Collaboration." But there are several planks in the platform, and they have very unequal support. "Transparency" means making governmental information public, and there is a skillful set of advocacy groups that lobby and litigate for that principle. "Collaboration" means reorganizing executive branch programs so that citizens and nonprofits can participate. There is no lobby for that. Many of the mainstream liberal advocacy groups are actually against participation--and the conservative groups don't approve of these programs in the first place. Thus when the Obama Administration cuts a program that has cultivated collaboration, no organized lobby complains.

Another aspect of reform is strengthening civic education for Americans of all ages, so that citizens and policymakers are better equipped to deliberate, collaborate, and self-govern. One piece of civic education is the "civics" class in high schools. When civics courses are cut, organized groups such as the National Council for the Social Studies respond. I am not saying that they have enough clout or support; they need our help. (I'm going to the NCSS conference in Atlanta tomorrow.) At the same time, it's important to note that certain other aspects of a civic education agenda have no support at all. For instance, the Civic Mission of Schools recognizes extracurricular activities in schools as important opportunities to develop civic skills. But there is no organized lobby for extracurricular groups in general; only a few particular types of groups have effective supporters. Likewise, no one advocates for adults to have voluntary civic learning opportunities.

We could continue this analysis in much more detail, identifying civic reforms that lack advocacy. This list should not be limited to "process" reforms, but should also include a critical review of mainstream policy issues from a civic engagement perspective. For instance, maybe adding co-ops to the health reform bill would have strengthened active citizenship. No one advocated for that idea, because the whole civic renewal movement is small and weak, and many participants are committed to a rigorous form of policy neutrality. They want to create open spaces for diverse people to discuss issues like health care, but do not want to advocate specific reforms, even if that's the best path to civic renewal.

Overall, it would help to have a single coalition that would identify tactical targets for policy reform while consistently articulating the overall vision of civic engagement. I am thinking of an analogy to my first employer, Common Cause, which began when John Gardner articulated a broad reform agenda in his book of the same name. He also created a new kind of organization, which depended on mass mailings, dues-paying members, and a professional lobbying corps in Washington (to which I once belonged). Gardner's policy agenda is now dated, his organizational model no longer works as planned, and Common Cause itself has had to specialize in a few aspects of democratic reform. We urgently need a new campaign with similar purposes and ambitions, but different priorities and an innovative structure appropriate to our times.

November 12, 2009 9:09 AM | category: none



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