Citizen Participation: Too much of a good thing?

As Americans, we tend to be skeptical of our government.


But can you blame us?  Look at how our country began.


This past 4th of July, NPR tweeted out the Declaration of Independence.  Not everyone recognized it and thought NPR was calling for an overthrow of the current administration. Yeah, it's a pretty rowdy document.


Our beginnings have created a tradition of feeling that "We the People" have the power to change anything in the government that we don't like.  We see the government as working for us and not the other way around.  

And that's a good thing!  

I'm grateful I live in a country that values my opinion and wants me to participate in the process.  


Citizen participation is a topic that has been researched and studied around the world.  Answers to questions are sought such as:

How much should citizens know?  

How much should citizens participate? 

When should citizens participate?  

To try to help answer these questions and more, in July 1969 Sherry R. Arnstein published what is known as a Ladder of Citizen Participation.  

While not a perfect model, it does effectively show how power shifts at each rung.


Essentially at the bottom of the ladder you have citizens being manipulated by the government, at the top of the ladder you have citizens with complete control and the government cannot do anything about it.

So which rung is best?  

It depends.  

This is where citizen participation requires an understanding of how it works and how it works best.  

What if there is a major crisis and the government needs to tell everyone to evacuate? Holding focus groups to see how citizens feel about leaving their homes wouldn't be very smart.  (This would be an example of Consulting.)

What if a city wants to build a community pool and bond millions of dollars to do so?  Telling the community that their taxes will go up to pay for a debt might not go over too well if this is the first time they hear about it.  (This is an example of Informing.)  

Since this ladder was published, many scholars have come forward to criticize this model and have created their own.

When I was in grad school working towards my public administration degree, I had one professor who didn't like the idea of participation as rungs on a ladder implying each interaction was mutually exclusive.  

The reality is each community is different.  Some local governments are corrupt.   Some local governments do a great job running their city, like Provo, Utah voted the second best managed city in America.  Citizens are different too.  Some are organized and vocal, others have no idea who is on their City Council.  So as you can imagine it's hard to place community interactions on a single rung on a ladder.  

But, I do like the ladder because it can help both citizens and government leaders alike to evaluate what kind of participation is appropriate.  

I live in two communities that handle citizen participation very differently.
Battery Park City, a part of New York City

In Battery Park City the BPCA (Battery Park City Authority) doesn't even have board members who live in Battery Park City.  Residents of Battery Park City are not allowed to speak at the public meetings, which only recently even allowed the public to attend.  If they have anything they want to say, they must submit it in writing.

Pleasant Grove, Utah (Could my two residences BE any more different?)

In Pleasant Grove, Utah, city council meetings are streamed live over the internet and citizens are given 3 minutes to say whatever is on their mind during the open session.  And here's a novel idea, the council members actually live IN Pleasant Grove.

Seriously, Gov. Cuomo, what on earth are you thinking?
But is it possible to have too much of a good thing?  

Yes, even with citizen participation.  

While patriotic critics are necessary for a robust government.  Complete citizen control is not.

Both James Madison and Benjamin Franklin were wary of what is known as direct democracy, when the citizens take over and make decisions for the government.  They didn't even like the word democracy and wanted to keep the word "republic."

To learn what direct democracy is and how it works, click here.  

Direct democracy became popular during the Progressive Era when frontier politics were corrupt.  It was a way for citizens to take back control.  But since the 1970's initiatives, referendums, and recalls have done more harm than good.  

Especially for California, Oregon, and Arizona where they are heavily used.

Initiatives not only take over the budget, but also drive public policy from casinos to the size of chicken coops.  

An article in the Economist states why direct democracy is so dangerous.

"In many cases, there is no evidence that voters have studied the issues or even comprehend the initiative text (which can run to thousands of words). Instead, those who vote are likely to rely on attack ads by special interests or sponsors on television, or celebrity endorsements."

Asking residents to vote on initiatives, referendums, and recalls, eliminates opportunities for citizens to participate in the process.  There are no town halls, no open sessions, no debate, not even public meetings.  Just a group of citizens who privately draft a piece of legislation and then ask uninformed citizens to vote on it.  The only input a voter can give is either "yes" or "no."  

Strangely enough, between my two residences, it is Pleasant Grove and not Battery Park City that is able to vote on an initiative this general election.  A group of men, without any public forums or meetings, drafted a piece of legislation in a single day.   With the help of a lawyer they won't name, they wrote an initiative that moves 18% of the General Fund to a different fund to pay for roads reducing services in other areas.  They claim their justification for ignoring citizen participation in this process was the results from a city survey that revealed road repair was most important to the residents.

To find out how city residents were manipulated into thinking funding roads is a top priority when the problem has existed for several years, click here.  

Are any of them experts in government accounting?  No. 

Are any of them experts in public works?  No. 

Did they consult city staff when drafting the initiative?  No.

Did they ask for public input when drafting the initiative?  No.

Jacob is the author of the initiative.  This comment was made on Facebook on July 17, 2017.  

This is a screenshot of the Fund Roads First Initiative presented to the City on March 1, 2017--just 24 hours later. 

When a bunch of friends get together and draft an ordinance without any general public or government input then tell citizens to sign the petition to "get the roads fixed," I add one more rung to top of the ladder.  If I'm not comfortable with my government officials drafting legislation behind closed doors, why should I be comfortable with everyday citizens doing it?  

Extremes on both ends should be avoided. 

I think I have a better sense of how Aaron Burr felt when he learned that the nation's capital was moved to Washington, D.C. in exchange for a national debt.  I too want to be in the room where it happens, or at least be able to read the minutes afterwards.  

This hastily written initiative plays upon the emotions of Americans who are naturally skeptical of government.  The authors make false claims like "the City Council has done nothing to fix the roads" (not true) and "we can afford to trim our budget by one-fifth and not lose any services" (again not true).  As these lies are spread, citizens are confused and wondering how to vote.  Of course they want their roads fixed, of course they don't want higher taxes and fees, so of course this initiative sounds appealing.
To those who live in Pleasant Grove, Utah or anywhere else that has an initiative, referendum, or recall on this year's ballot, ask yourself these questions:  

  • Do I want to be able to participate in my government with more than just a yes or a no vote?  
  • Do I want my voice heard BEFORE legislation is put on the ballot?  
  • Do I want this country to be the Republic that our Founding Fathers intended it to be?  
  • Am I comfortable with a bunch of friends privately drafting ordinances in 24 hours that affect my city's budget?  

As citizens we need to participate, but we need to participate in the best way possible. 

To learn more about the dangerous initiative facing the small town of Pleasant Grove, Utah, click here.