Political soul-searching is impossible for practicing politicians. Once we as individual citizens realize this simple point, we can start asking the tough questions they can’t afford to ask. It’s my feeling that a dramatic political reorganization is looming on the horizon. In California, adjustments in how cities and counties interact with state government are being seriously discussed. Elected leaders in these more local jurisdictions can’t hesitate for long…their ability to deliver critical services will be compromised within the next few months. Unfortunately, this appears to be only the beginning with California breaking-trail for the rest of our country. It’s too late to make the decisions that would solve our political problems with small adjustments…fine-tuning won’t create enough change quickly enough. I believe we need a soul-searching public conversation about how we want to balance our democracy to meet 21st century needs.
In some previous posts, I’ve addressed some corollary topics…on our unsuccessful experiment in self-regulation, the dismantling of our equality infrastructure, our desire to create a new and improved, comfort bubble and why the ‘tea parties’ might be right. My focus today brings what I feel is some added clarity in current trends and our responsibility to talk…and then to act. While some folks might want to think that we look back into our political history in order to restore something that existed and was then lost, I believe our current situation is uniquely challenging. Our urbanization, our technology, our diversity, our global economy, our environmental challenges, our energy future…together these factors make the context of our public conversations unique and highly complex. Because every village, town, city, county and state has a different profile among these factors, all levels of participatory governance must be valued as equal and respected partners in democracy. A balanced democracy can provide increased effectiveness, accountability and adaptive capacity.
In evaluating governance at any level, effectiveness is probably the first criteria many people would identify. If government cannot deliver the right resources or services to the right person on a timely basis, it’s failed. Effectiveness is completely outcome-oriented. Our current political crisis is directly threatening many parts of what has been the delivery system for our national priorities. Many federal programs require state, county and city delivery agencies, but those agencies are losing staff and support funding at alarming rates. Some local school districts and local governments are faced with ending vital programs where federal funds are still available, because they can no longer fund their local program infrastructure. A balanced democracy is effective in delivering resources and services, because all levels of the delivery infrastructure are included in coordination, funding and evaluation.
Accountability holds people responsible as partners in democracy. It’s been my observation that accountability works differently at all levels of governance. At the local level, citizens can pick up the phone or send an email to contact elected officials and department directors about problems they’re having in getting resources or services. In addition, elected officials are simply more attentive to citizens’ complaints, because just a few disgruntled people can derail reelection hopes or plans to seek other offices. When we consider state and federal accountability, however, the sheer number of people who participate as advocates or voters dilutes the efforts of even the most motivated citizens. In recent history, accountability at these higher levels has only been effective through the intense scrutiny of the news media, but the record seems to show that job performance isn’t as important in gaining the media’s time and attention as personal scandals. A balanced democracy is accountable to the public, because it’s focused on the evaluation of job performance at all levels.
The capacity to adapt accurately and quickly to emerging needs and changing resources is also different across the range of levels in governance. Local leaders and agencies have a closer association with the diverse needs of their citizens, so they can recognize changes before they get to be crises. In many instances, programs can be efficiently adapted through policy changes rather than having to wait for legislation. At the state and federal levels, however, changes in policy and in legislation must be considered more deliberately…needs must be seen to be systemic to warrant changes in resources or services that will affect the whole country. As with accountability, the sheer number of people affected at the federal level makes change a more time-consuming, learning and action process. A balanced democracy is a user-friendly, fully-integrated learning organization, because it actively and carefully listens to the diverse voices of the public, mostly provided through non-profit and non-partisan organizations that practice dialogue and deliberation.
Sadly, we seem to have a ‘system of governance’ that’s not sustainable. Just as the continued accumulation of money and power by the ultra-wealthy threatens the long-term health of our economy, the unbalanced growth of power in state and federal, unfunded mandates on local school districts, counties, cities and small businesses threatens the health of our loosely-bound and increasingly fragile ‘system of governance.’ I believe we need a soul-searching public conversation about the roles, responsibilities and linkages of government. In addition, I believe that the concept of a balanced democracy can contribute some important tensions and trade-offs with the views of both liberal-leaning and conservative-leaning scholars, advocates and private citizens.