Elected officials must always be engaged

Posted Thursday, Jun. 12, 2014  comments  Print Reprints

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Analysis of the surprising defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor included the notion, as one county GOP chair told The Washington Post, that voters “hadn’t seen him,” that Cantor had lost touch with his constituency after a long tenure in office and a greater focus on inside-the-Beltway politics than on his district.

Cantor would not be the first to face accusations of being “out of touch” with his electorate, and his defeat raises important questions about how elected officials at all levels should engage constituents after elections.

The “radio silence” that many officeholders adopt after taking office, particularly at the state and national levels, can leave many voters feeling unrepresented.

At the local level, mayors and public administrators in cities across America have begun to realize that those affected by a City Council’s decision should be able to affect those decisions.

Many cities have moved past the era in which people are asked to wait around for hours to speak for a mere three minutes on a topic of great concern to them, the fate of which was likely decided much earlier.

Many cities have taken innovative approaches to engaging the public in dialogue well before making any decisions about policy or budgeting. In cities like New York and Chicago, the public has been invited to “participatory budgeting” processes in which they propose and then vote on specific projects to receive city funding.

In cities like Austin and Fort Worth, citizens can attend a meeting in person or watch the same meeting on television or online. Afterward, they can interact with officials by phone, text message or social media, producing an audience of several thousand that represents a broader cross-section of the public than would otherwise be possible.

But few members of Congress deviate from the “town hall” medium of engagement: positioning themselves in front of a verbal firing squad at the front of an auditorium only to face a barrage of often hostile questions that leave them defensive and silence those who want to have a serious conversation.

Given Congress’s recess schedule and its use of social media, politically advantageous opportunities exist for more robust engagement between members and their constituents, both in person and online. Members of Congress could ask their constituents directly how to handle issues at hand.

Certainly, constituents could call or write, but in the absence of any invitation to provide input or personalized response, the exercise could seem futile.

In its “core values,” the International Association for Public Participation argues that governments should “provide participants with the information they need to participate in a meaningful way,” and “communicate to participants how their input affected the decision.”

Incumbents who don’t take heed could increasingly face a fate like Eric Cantor’s, tossed from office for being unengaged with voters.

Larry Schooler is a senior fellow at the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life at the University of Texas at Austin.

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