Traverse City Record-Eagle

Opinion

February 27, 2014

Phil Power: Make your voice heard for a better state

I don’t like it. Nobody does.

But if you’re not the president of a big company, the head of a single-interest group, a powerful union or a bored billionaire, you don’t have much clout with our political system today.

And that’s too bad. Because in our representative democracy, the people are supposed to have a deciding voice, not just a small band of insiders with money. That’s why the nonpartisan Center for Michigan has been sponsoring a series of community conversations all over the state. These are small groups of citizens — 15 to 25 people — who meet in living rooms, libraries, schools.

Usually, the conversations last around two hours. They consider the big topics affecting our state: Schools, taxes, public spending, jobs and economic development. They’re led by trained facilitators and scribes who take down everybody’s comments and use clicker technology to capture people’s choices and priorities.

The data from these meetings are analyzed by Public Sector Consultants, a Lansing-based research outfit, and form the basis for reports the Center publishes on the public’s agenda for Michigan’s future. The demography of conversation participants is carefully managed to make sure that the folks who take part look just like the face of Michigan in gender, age, race and residence.

We’ve been doing this for the past six years. Since then, nearly 30,000 Michiganders have been involved in these conversations, the largest public outreach campaign in Michigan history.

These discussions are not just idle chatter. Taken together, they contain an authentic public agenda for our state’s future, which has a real impact on the attitudes of office holders and candidates.

Four years ago, for example, every single candidate for governor came to the Center’s office and asked for a detailed briefing on the attitudes of Michigan’s citizens. And it is clear to me that these views had a substantial impact on the ways candidates framed the issues in both the primary and the general election.

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