Paradoxically, public hearings may reduce people’s trust in government, study says

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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.

To explain these trends in part, Funkhouser suggests that outdated laws and overly formal procedures for public meetings erode peoples’ trust in government.

In other words, he 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.