October 11, 2007

Blog On Citizen Engagement

One of my passions ever since I was a teenager has been government. As a teenager, I actually wrote an op-ed piece for the Rochester, New York, daily newspapers advocating reduction of the minimum voting age from 21 to 18, which happened years later.

Today, I believe strongly that we are best served as a society to the degree that all of our citizens participate in some way in helping government function better.

The first and most important way to help government function better is to vote. I believe strongly in making voting secure and having complete integrity and trust in the voting process, but, at the same time, we need to make it easier for eligible voters to register and vote. That’s why we have provided secure voting-by-mail solutions through our Relia-Vote system. That’s why I have believed that states should allow “no-excuses” voting by mail as an alternative, very much the way California offers voters the choice of either voting in person or registering to vote by mail. The states that have complete voting-by-mail systems, Washington and Oregon, have higher participation rates, on average, than other states. One could argue whether voting by mail is the cause of that or whether an already engaged citizenry in those states demands voting by mail, but I believe it has to help voter participation to add choices on how voters can exercise their right to vote.

I’ve discovered a California Institute of Technology blog that includes commentary about the effectiveness of voting by mail. A recent posting references a new study on this topic, that provides some material for debate.

The study randomly selected a group of voters that live in California’s precincts with fewer than 250 voters (and by California law, mandated to vote by mail) and compared their turnout with other California voters who had the option to vote absentee or at the polls. They found a slight decrease in turnout among those in the first group.

The authors do feel voting by mail can increase turnout (by up to 8%) in three types of elections: local, special elections, and ballot measures. They think that marginal voters being reminded of an election through the mail ballot could make a significant difference in turnout compared to these same voters in a higher profile race, with active mail, phones, TV campaigns and sophisticated “Get out the Vote” operations.

While I don’t know that I completely agree with the study’s methodology, it is credible and thoughtful.

But engagement should go beyond voting. I also answer surveys from elected officials and government agencies, because I believe that those who govern us are better served if they know what we think. I have volunteered to serve on public-private task forces for over two decades because I think business, the non-profit sector, and government, working together through engaged citizens produce better outcomes.

On Tuesday evening, October 9, I chaired a public hearing in Bridgeport, Connecticut, of the Connecticut Transportation Advisory Commission at which we heard testimony from Nancy Hadley, a former CT Deputy Commissioner. She described a program in the 1990’s in which different companies, including Pitney Bowes, adopted a government agency and helped it use best-in-class business practices to improve its operations. I thought that was an inspired idea from whoever came up with it.

I also believe that, as citizens, we should report issues to government or to private sector players performing a government-like function if we can help. I am very likely to report a traffic congestion problem to a local radio station if the station has not announced it, so that others can avoid a delay I have experienced. Back in the 1970’s, there was actually a broadly-based citizens band radio network in which motorists chatted about traffic problems with other motorists. It became a big fad at the time, even to the point that there was a number 1 hit record by a singer named C.W. McCall about CB radio users. The CB radio fad died, but the idea of sharing knowledge about traffic problems in real time is a good one.

In New Jersey, as I have commented in a previous blog, motorists can report on reckless drivers. In New York City, Mayor Bloomberg created a 311 telephone number to make it easy for citizens to report on everything from crime to potholes. In our Connecticut DOT Advisory Commission project, we have made it easy for citizens to give input on what we do relative to Connecticut DOT activities. We need to tap the wisdom of anyone who can help on any issue.

I also believe that we all benefit when we can understand public policy issues by participating in, or observing, the public business of government. Many people do not have the time or the ability to get to public hearings on issues, but with special TV channels today in many communities, they do not need to. Where I live in Southwestern Connecticut, Cablevision sets aside Channel 79 for broadcasting government hearings. At a national level, we have all benefited from having C-SPAN broadcast proceedings on many important issues.
At times, government hearings are extremely boring and tedious, but, whether we like it or not, what happens there matters a great deal to us. I recall a few years ago taking my son, who was at that time trying to get one of the citizenship merit badges for Boy Scouts, to a public hearing at our town hall. The subject of the hearing that night was the status of our high school construction project. Buried in the detail was an item about the challenges of getting the baseball field completed because of drainage issues. Later, we learned that the baseball field would not be ready when the school was completed, and that private funding would be needed to complete it. In retrospect, I wish I had gone to some of the other hearings, and had been able to tell my fellow baseball coaches a year earlier that we would need to develop a fund-raising campaign to get an adequate baseball field.

I have always lived my life with a handful of simple principles, one of which is that, if somebody is going to make a decision that profoundly affects my life or the lives of my loved ones, I not only want to know about it in advance, but I want to be at the table influencing the decision. To me, broader citizen engagement is something that everyone should find it in his or her self-interest to do, not to mention the good we do for others when we engage on public issues.