Outside of fictional Pawnee, most people don’t attend public hearings. And, according to a study by the Knight Foundation, doing so is more likely to reduce a person’s sense of political efficacy than to increase it.
“Despite the fact that governments are pumping out more and more information to citizens, trust in government has edged lower and lower,” writes Mark Funkhouser for Governing magazine.
There are plenty of hypotheses about why people become more disengaged after attending or participating in public hearings. The first is that those people who attend do so because of an issue they feel strongly about, or an issue they already have negative feelings toward. The stereotype of public hearings being populated by generally dissatisfied citizens is not altogether false — though it is not even close to the whole story. Another possibility is that people begin their public engagement with high hopes for what it will mean — and just as with any other endeavor, their expectations fail to be met. Disappointment on any level may be responsible for diminished satisfaction with government.
On these lines, it could be that public leaders that are held in high regard from afar become seen as less able or trustworthy up close. Or, it could be that people feel they will be able to change the course of an issue for the better, and upon getting into the system, realize that barriers to change are high.
Funkhouser takes another tack to explain, in part, the paradoxical relationship between public engagement and public trust. He suggests that it is outdated laws and overly formal procedures for public meetings erode peoples’ trust in government.
In other words, Funkhouser says, when it comes to public engagement with lawmakers, “there are better ways than three minutes at the microphone.”
Funkhouser suggests that strict government sunshine laws may actually dampen meaningful citizen engagement rather than simply preventing backroom collusion. For example, he bemoans the growing formality of citizen advisory boards that he feels edge people out who would otherwise be inclined to participate.
The Knight Foundation’s 36-page report, titled “Making Public Participation Legal“, outlines issues and recommendations for making political engagement more accessible and satisfactory. The report also offers model city charter language for citizen advisory boards.
Notably, the model language carves out an exception to the Sunshine Act to allow multiple public officials to engage in policy conversations with members of the public, provided that the issues originate with the public.
Changes to the contexts of public participation may indeed change minds or feelings of public trust. But it is a delicate line to walk to erode any level of transparency to get there. All it takes is a few backroom deals gone public to make the public even more distrustful than before.
In sum, we could be doing a whole lot worse than “three minutes at the microphone.”