Goldschmidt is the director of strategic initiatives at the Congressional Management Foundation and co-author of "The Future of Citizen Engagement: Rebuilding the Democratic Dialogue."
Over the past few months, Newsweek has been following the progress of a petition from citizens asking Congress to continue sending monthly stimulus checks to Americans for the duration of the pandemic. With nearly 3 million signatures, it is one of the best-supported petitions ever run on Change.org. Sadly, it will result in nearly 3 million separate email messages distributed to each signer’s senators and House members, who have no way of knowing the messages are part of such a big, national grassroots campaign. Each member of Congress will choose whether or not to act, and some of the 3 million signers who now feel part of something big may not even get a response.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could engage with Congress in ways that help us better trust, understand and guide what they’re doing, and that make us feel like our voices really make a difference?
Some advocates participate in online petitions like this and dutifully click to send whatever form message results. Some attend telephone and in-person town hall meetings to support or oppose our leaders — or simply to ask a question. And, of course, we have elections. But these acts of civic engagement often leave us empty, feeling unheard and apathetic or angry. Few of us engage in practices that truly inform legislators and build strong trust and understanding with those they represent. And it’s not entirely our fault. We’re following standard practices for communicating with elected officials, often facilitated by the groups we associate with.
Unfortunately, standard practices have not kept pace with the times.
Congress lacks the capacity to meet the demands of a 21st century constituency and has been slow to embrace new technology and innovation. Grassroots organizers — associations, nonprofits and companies that facilitate the vast majority of advocacy flooding Congress — focus on easy and efficient advocacy strategies, rather than those proven to be more effective for policy outcomes but which are harder to implement. As a result, Americans do not feel heard, and Congress is spending countless hours and millions of dollars on the administrative tasks of responding to form letters instead of the dynamic activities of engaging with the people who sent them.
But there are bright spots that portend a better future. The Congressional Management Foundation recently offered transformative strategies to enhance engagement between decision-makers and the people in a report: “The Future of Citizen Engagement: Rebuilding the Democratic Dialogue.” We also identified examples of members of Congress, nonprofit groups, and legislatures trying new approaches, including:
- A years-long effort by the House Natural Resources Committee to engage stakeholders and the public in “an inclusive, transparent, community-led and community-driven process to create the most comprehensive environmental justice bill in congressional history.”
- Members of Congress conducting virtual deliberative town hall meetings, which enable them to dive deeper with their constituents into a single issue than allowed by the typical, free-for-all town halls most legislators host.
- State legislatures, including Washington and Oregon, providing digital tools to facilitate public comment on bills and committee proceedings.
- International parliaments, including New Zealand and the U.K., offering multiple venues for public engagement, including submissions to committees, complaints about regulations, messages to members of Parliament and petitions (more formal than the “click here” versions discussed above).
- Municipalities, including Paris, establishing permanent and representative citizens’ councils to advise leaders and help engage other residents in decision-making.
Extensive research by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development indicates efforts like these lead to significant benefits to democracy, including: better policy outcomes, greater legitimacy of decisions, increased public trust, a decline in undue influence of money and power, and reduced polarization and disinformation.
Unfortunately, most deliberative opportunities with Congress are one-time experimental efforts. If we want to reap the benefits of true public engagement in national decision-making, it must be methodical, representative, government-facilitated and woven into the DNA of Congress. We need proven methods to be scaled up and to become common practice for senators and representatives.
In the early days of our republic, Congress had such a system that enabled diverse voices to weigh in on policy — the petition process guaranteed by the First Amendment — but that has long since atrophied to the point we no longer remember what it was or how to facilitate it. We need now to rebuild trust through engagement that demonstrates that the People are partners in the democratic process rather than subject to the whims of monied interests, ersatz advocacy and angry mobs. And if our current state of affairs is any indication, we need to do it soon. Many are concerned that our democracy is at stake, possibly facing its worst existential crisis since the Civil War. It’s past time to embrace proven methods for engaging the People and enhancing trust in Congress and offer America a 21st century republic that anyone would be proud to participate in.