State Sen. Wendy Davis’ multihour filibuster over abortion measures pending before the Legislature attracted an unprecedented level of attention. Ultimately, the filibuster and the fever accompanying it reveal, among other things, a broken and inadequate system of public participation that needs substantial repairs.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst decried the Occupy Wall Street tactics of an “unruly mob” in announcing that the Legislature did not pass the abortion measures on time, in part because of protesters’ noise engulfing the chamber. Sadly, he and the Legislature gave the public little other choice. Their options for participating in their democracy were very limited.
While it may seem obvious, those affected by a decision should be able to affect that decision, a core value expressed by the International Association for Public Participation. Unfortunately, current public participation policies and practices make that difficult, if not impossible, for much of the public affected by a decision to affect that decision.
Governments often call only for a public hearing as a bill is being considered. That hearing is limited to those with the self-confidence, courage and fortitude to speak in public (and on television or the Internet) for a handful of minutes after traveling hundreds of miles and waiting hours to do so. Thus, hearings appeal to a tiny portion of the public, and they often occur so close to a vote that they carry little weight. Interestingly, Senator Davis read public hearing testimony during her filibuster. Public hearings aren’t enough; governments need input from those who prefer to talk in smaller groups, at lower volumes, with fewer diatribes and more offers of compromise.
The National League of Cities found most local elected officials use a wide range of other public participation tools such as community forums and workshops, neighborhood councils and online discussions. They see important benefits such as “developing a stronger sense of community, building trust between the public and city hall and finding better solutions to local problems.” Similarly, the American Planning Association found that 75 percent of Americans believe engaging citizens through local planning is essential to economic recovery and job creation. After all, if a city responds to the needs and market demands from its citizens, that city would more likely see development occur that adds to the tax base, entices new residents and creates jobs in the process.
While a state the size of Texas poses challenges for engaging the public, creative thinking and strategic partnerships can overcome those challenges. State universities with multiple campuses can serve as conveners and hosts of public dialogue. Traditional and social media can carry meetings live to audiences across the state who can participate via text message, instant message or telephone call.
Regardless of whether elected officials support more public participation, they ignore the public at their own peril, as the Davis filibuster illustrates. The exclusion of the public from participating in their democracy can prove costly. Some sue to be heard and bleed the public’s coffers in legal fees. Others mount recall elections, which also prove costly, divide the community and drive politics into gridlock.
But the public does seize the opportunity to participate directly, and the results can be profound. A visually impaired college student finds a booth on campus to discuss his community’s future and, with help, spends a half-hour completing a very visual land use exercise. His and others’ input evolves into a preferred community growth scenario for the next 30 years. Thousands participate, online and in person, in conversations about how to spend the public’s money on bonds for capital improvement projects, using “play money” to decide in small groups what kinds of projects deserve funding. Elected officials then place bond referenda on a ballot that almost perfectly reflect the public’s input.
Undoubtedly, it would take new investments in time, money, and other resources to enable people around the country to discuss issues, review alternative approaches, and offer direct input to decision-makers. But the return on that investment would be significant—both financial and political.
Perhaps Americans divided on abortion could then unite around this common vision: to enable all Americans affected by a decision to affect that decision.
Schooler teaches public policy mediation at Southern Methodist University and is a Fellow at the Center for Public Policy Dispute Resolution at the University of Texas School of Law.