On Monday, I made a general argument for putting citizens to work (as citizens) on public problems. I had previously argued that this approach would change the relationship between citizens and government from the dysfunctional relationship under George W. Bush and from the relationship of the Clinton years, when government was presented as a helper to relatively passive individuals.
It’s worth thinking about this philosophical shift in relation to our most urgent immediate problem: economic recovery. The Bush bailout and stimulus efforts have involved almost no accountability or transparency. The money has not been directed to ordinary Americans or used for important public purposes. We can do much better by combining Barack Obama’s call for “service and active citizenship” with his economic recovery plan.
In policy terms, putting citizens to work on economic recovery means:
- Passing and fully funding the Kennedy-Hatch Serve America Act (which Senator Obama cosponsored) as a contribution to the economic recovery
- Enlisting citizens to provide guidance and accountability when public money is used for the economic recovery. Tools for participation can include:
- Public deliberations at the local level about priorities for spending
- Citizens’ review panels that complement (not replace) professional oversight by government auditors
- Web-based tools to disclose details about spending and invite public discussion and input
- Civil servants supporting such work by citizens as part of their job descriptions
- Creating jobs programs within various agencies and policy domains that involve the participants in planning and learning. HUD already funds YouthBuild to construct houses and teach civic skills. This is a model for other agencies.
- Civil service reform to make public sector jobs more attractive to younger people and to promote partnerships between agencies and non-governmental groups.
- A renewed focus on civic education in k-12 schools, colleges, and youth employment programs, so that young people learn how to discuss and analyze public problems as part of their preparation for the work world.