Many people complain that public discourse — at the local and national levels — is increasingly polarized and ultimately ineffective. Indeed, trust in government and other major institutions is at a historic low, and public opinion in Hawaii is no different.

Low participation in elections and a lack of engagement with local issues are becoming the norm. Public meetings often turn angry as opinions become hardened, while slanted and weaponized information permeates the blogosphere.

And yet, democracy in Hawaii (and elsewhere) requires strong citizen input and high-caliber public engagement if the decisions our leaders make are to become effective and broadly accepted.

With this as background, over 125 people in Hawaii gathered at the East-West Center on Dec. 1 to examine the state of public participation in our community and search for improvements to it. The conference, “Public Participation in a Polarized Era: The Good, The Bad, The Future,” probed what is and isn’t working well.

Onipaa attendees first day of Legislature.
Opening day of the 2018 Hawaii Legislature. The authors propose ways to get the public more involved with their government. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Most important, it provided a platform for diverse individuals from the public, private and nonprofit sectors to share ideas and float recommendations. A 20-minute summary video can be viewed here.

Several dozen ideas and suggestions from participants can be found online at the conference website. As organizers, we grouped them into five categories: 1) reforming government systems and rules; 2) improving participation strategies and designs; 3) enhancing our public conversations; 4) broadening access and participation; and 5) increasing the competence of leaders and participants.

“Our greatness lies not in being more enlightened than others, but in our ability to repair our faults.” — Alexis de Tocqueville

Clearly, many people want to see improvements and enhancements to the public’s role in decision-making. It would be ironic if a conference devoted to improving public participation resulted in just another pleasant discussion, but no further action.

Accordingly, we have identified a “short list” of initiatives either culled from, or inspired by, the ideas of conference attendees. We and other colleagues plan to act on some of these and invite others to create and lead initiatives of their own.

Ten Initiatives For Public Participation

  1. Re-examine Hawaii’s Sunshine Law to determine problems and issues that may be hampering good governance and policymaking.
  2. Write a set of best practices for how to effectively interact with government agencies, and make the information widely available to those agencies and to the public.
  3. Develop a public involvement newsletter with case studies, skills, tips, articles and best practices.
  4. Train and certify citizen moderators to better manage online dialogues.
  5. Expand the peer-learning networks of practitioners of community facilitation.
  6. Create a Hawaii “citizen’s guide” for participants in public meetings to learn about how regulatory processes work and how to be more effective as participants.
  7. Develop a set of specific methods for informing people who are not at the table about discussions that affect them and create a way to solicit their opinions.
  8. Create written templates for designing participatory processes that address how to: select participants; conduct communications processes; and further improve decision-making that leads to actions.
  9. Create model Rules of Engagement for use in public meetings to encourage more civility.
  10. Initiate a Hawaii “Citizen Review Panel” process to strengthen voter education for future county ballot initiatives or charter amendments, or possibly for highly-contentious legislative issues (e.g., Death with Dignity, etc.) such as was done by the Oregon’s Citizen Initiative Review Commission.

Civil Beat’s recent set of commentaries on the hopes and concerns of a possible 2018 constitutional convention suggests yet another way to strengthen civic involvement.

It could be constructive to assemble a small group of diverse and independent viewpoints to discuss, analyze and report out in plain language what a con-con is, the possible risks and benefits that could ensue and a list of possible agenda items that could emerge if voters approve of proceeding.

Alexis de Tocqueville, a French diplomat and keen observer of the American democratic  experiment in the 1800s, said, “Our greatness lies not in being more enlightened than others, but in our ability to repair our faults.”

Let’s try to repair the faults of well-meaning but outdated or flawed public participation processes to make them more inclusive, respectful, informative and effective.

Editor’s note: Kathryn Ranney, Kem Lowry, Rich Wilson, Scott McCreary and Peter Adler of The Accord3.0 Network co-authored this Community Voice.

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About the Authors