Would public meetings incite more civic engagement if they were structured in ways that are simply more engaging? I addressed this question by conducting an original survey with an oversample of racial and ethnic minorities and individuals from low-income households. The survey featured a randomized experiment in which each study participant was shown a short clip of an actual school board meeting that was (1) a standard meeting with no public participation, (2) a meeting with public participation, or (3) a meeting with deliberation (public participation followed by a reasoned response from the school board). The experience of viewing the more participatory and deliberative school board meetings led to increased trust in local officials and a stronger willingness to attend school board meetings in the future. This study has significant implications for civic engagement, local politics, and public school governance.
From the article:
Public meetings are a critical component of American democracy. Of the most used types of political participation, attending a public meeting is the only one that allows for citizens to have direct contact with policy makers in real time. As Brian Adams (2004, 43) states, public meetings “can facilitate citizen participation and the development of good policy by assisting citizens in achieving their political goals.” Public meetings create proverbial windows of transparency, which allow for citizen oversight of the legislative behavior of political elites. Despite the utility of these meetings to American democracy, public meeting attendance as a form of political participation is underutilized. Since 2000, in each year that the American National Election Study (ANES) has been administered, only 20% to 30% of Americans report having attended at least one meeting over the course of previous the year (see Figure 11). This means that, in a given year, over 70% of Americans never attend a public meeting at all. If federal elections experienced such consistently low levels of participation, we would consider American democracy.
The threat that low and uneven public meeting attendance creates for American democracy has long been a concern for political scientists. “The town meeting has certainly lost a great deal of the power it once had, and attendance has declined,” writes Jane Mansbridge (1980, 127). As such, the findings of this study have implications for how public meetings can generate more participation and help deepen trust in local institutions, especially school boards. The evidence presented above indicates that exposing individuals to public meetings that feature direct citizen participation and public deliberation, respectively, directly leads to increased trust in local officials and an increased willingness to attend public meetings in the future. The upshot here is that vibrant, engaging meetings can beget active, well-attended meetings.