the administration’s civic engagement agenda

This is a very interesting report of a meeting convened by Beth Noveck, the new director of the White House open government initiative. Participants included many of the best scholars and practitioners in the field, and the discussion summary is available for all to see. Beth apparently began by saying, “We’re looking for ideas and recommendations on how to create a more transparent, participatory, and collaborative government.”

Meanwhile, the civilian service agenda continues to move forward. There was money for AmeriCorps in the stimulus package, and the GIVE Act (HR 1388) is moving in the House. [Update at 5:30 pm: it passed today.] This is the equivalent of the Senate’s Kennedy-Hatch Serve America Act. It would dramatically enhance the quality and quantity of service opportunities and would direct federally-funded service toward three major social objectives: carbon reduction, health care, and high school dropout prevention.

I see these as two important planks of a “civic platform.” I have spent considerable amounts of my own energies in support of transparency and online engagement, on one hand, and service, on the other. In fact, my first national summit on service was in 1988, when I was an undergraduate; and my first full-time job was at Common Cause, where I worked on disclosure issues.

But I think these two planks are inadequate on their own. They will enlist specific subcategories of Americans in civic engagement. Certain people will get very excited about commenting on federal policy in interactive websites; others will spend a year of their lives tutoring or building houses. The vast majority of citizens, however, will do neither. Besides, neither commenting/discussing nor direct service exhausts the types of work that active citizens should do. In the worst case, the active commentators online will develop ideas that no policymaker can enact, and the AmeriCorps volunteers will provide direct assistance without addressing deep social problems. Both groups may be discouraged.

Other important planks should include:

  • National (and also local) discussions of issues that involve recruited citizens who represent the population as a whole.
  • Training programs and conferences that help federal civil servants to collaborate day-to-day with community-based groups.
  • Changes in key federal policies such as the Federal Advisory Committee Act to encourage and improve events like public hearings.
  • Grants programs within the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Fund for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education, and the National Science Foundation that promote citizen work.
  • Greater focus on the acquisition of civic skills in the US Department of Education and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (lately known as NCLB).

Finally, I would describe all the workers who are paid from stimulus funds–including the majority who work in the private sector–as active citizens and would call on them to discuss, plan, collaborate, and serve.

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