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.
It’s going to be like that again this year, as the voters have another chance to choose a governor, a secretary of state, attorney general and every member of the Legislature. Right now, the Center is holding on-site, in-person community conversations that will eventually involve more than 5,000 Michiganders.
Want to take part? If you’d like to attend an in-person discussion, visit https: //www.facebook.com/thecenterformichigan/events to find one near you. But for some busy people, it’s not convenient or even possible to take part in a face-to-face conversation. That’s why the Center is organizing a web-based community conversation in which any Michigan citizen can easily participate whenever they want, at www.thecenterformichigan.net
What’s even more interesting about the community conversations this year is that both candidates for governor — Republican Rick Snyder and Democratic challenger Mark Schauer — are endorsing them and encouraging citizens to participate.
In a video recorded for the Center, Snyder said he’s “helping participate in community conversations to get people’s views about what we can do better” in Michigan. Schauer’s video said, “Your voice matters … to help set the agenda for 2014 and beyond.” Snyder’s video is available at http://bit.ly/1hFfyos; Schauer’s is at http://bit.ly/1bWHit1.
What’s interesting is that while both candidates are bound to be bitter opponents on many issues during the campaign, they are coming together to endorse this nonpartisan process of citizen engagement. Consider this: Both major party candidates for governor agree that what really matters is to make Michigan a better place for all our citizens. The differences between them have to do with the particular policy means toward an overall shared goal: A better state.
The candidates’ endorsements of what we are doing is important proof that both recognize how fundamentally significant citizen views are in the political process. Community conversations are a new device to call forth the public agenda through a process that might be called “deliberative democracy.”
They are clearly having an impact: I don’t remember two competing candidates for governor ever jointly endorsing a nonpartisan effort to call forth citizen viewpoints.
So, don’t just take my advice. Take Schauer’s or Snyder’s. Participate in the web-based community conversations. Make your voice heard. And help make Michigan a better place.
Phil Power is a former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent. He is founder and president of The Center for Michigan, a centrist think-and-do tank. The opinions expressed here are his own. By email at: ppower@thecenterformichigan. net.