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California Lawmakers to Tackle Historic-Low Civic Participation

California’s glorious history is fueled by our tradition of “direct democracy,” most notably our initiative and referendum process which allows people to shape state policy via the ballot. That passion was historically accompanied by a similar interest and participation in the workings of our local governments.

But this great California tradition of public engagement is at risk. Voter turnout at the November 2014 general election hit a record low and Californians are decreasingly engaged in their communities as confidence in elected officials and government remains low.

Many people and organizations are working to change that.

The newly-established California State Assembly Select Committee on Civic Engagement will hold its first hearing on the importance of civic engagement on Tuesday morning (December 8) is the State Capitol (Room 126).

“Civic engagement is more than just voting,” said Lenny Mendonca, co-chair of California Forward. “It’s getting engaged in the public process, be it your city, your children’s school or any other issue that impacts your life. The Legislature calling out this issue is a recognition that more people should get involved.”

The hearing will include testimony from the California Consortium on Public Engagement, civic engagement organizations, elected officials, business representatives and other stakeholders.

“We’re excited to see the Assembly take a serious look at the public’s role in policy-making,” said Pete Peterson, executive director of the Davenport Institute for Public Policy at Pepperdine University and a member of the Consortium. “Over the last decade, public engagement has become a set of processes and technologies that have received broad acceptance at the municipal government level throughout California. It’s encouraging to see this ‘wave’ reach Sacramento.”

The Assembly convened the select committee to explore opportunities for deeper and more deliberative engagement across the state. Expert witnesses will discuss the current state of public participation, the impacts of low participation, examples of state and local successes and opportunities to engage California communities, particularly on educational matters. Engagement that goes beyond the conventional methods can empower residents to take more active and direct roles and increase accountability for improving their community.

The Consortium believes civic engagement programs, if designed and resourced adequately, can mobilize citizens to overcome conflict, tailor efforts to their neighborhoods, sustainably manage common-pool resources, develop budgets to fund priority needs and conduct innumerable other activities.

CA Fwd, which is a member of the Consortium, talks about the need to restore trust in government on its website:

“For democracies to work, elected leaders need to be responsive and representative, and voters must be able to hold elected officials accountable for results. Democratic integrity requires an electoral process that empowers voters and gives candidates and incumbents the incentives to listen and lead. It requires transparency throughout the government so voters have an accurate understanding of public decisions and the results of public programs.”

Editor’s note: This article, written by Ed Coghlan, originally published on CA Fwd’s blog on December 7, 2015, and may have been modified slightly for publication on IVN. 

Photo Credit: Brandon Bourdages / shutterstock.com