In a recent study entitled Making Public Participation Legal, Matt Leighninger cites a Knight Foundation report that found that attending a public meeting was more likely to reduce a person's sense of efficacy and attachment to the community than to increase it. That sad fact is no surprise to the government officials who have to run -- and endure -- public meetings.
Making Public Participation Legal not only makes the case for how outdated public participation laws actually work against meaningful citizen engagement but also lays out an excellent set of policy options for strengthening public participation. The study includes model municipal and state public participation legislation, along with model city charter language for citizen advisory boards.
It is with these citizen advisory boards that the authors see the best chance for beginning to reframe the relationship between citizens and their governments. Over the years, these boards have become increasingly reactive and more formalized, often following Robert's Rules of Order and using public-hearing procedures that Leighninger says "replicate the limitations and disadvantages of city councils."
That's a big problem. The whole purpose of these citizen advisory boards is to provide an entry point for citizens into government decisions, gathering information and providing a forum for citizen advice and opinion to be communicated to the governing body. With a little tweaking, the study says, they could be "ideal forums for deliberative democracy practices that can better mirror the organic processes of citizen-driven collective action."