Anyone who lives within the sphere of influence of the City of Austin probably knows the new City Council in 2015 made its first order of business the encouragement of greater public input. Committees have been formed, a new website launched and public hearings held on – what else? – public input.
This is not an isolated event, but part of a growing concern. The Associated Press found last November that “civic engagement,” measured by a variety of actions, is low nationally. However, it was a new phenomenon, dubbed “intergenerational slippage” that really should concern those of us who want to see the most effective relationship between private enterprise and governance, now and in the future.
“Civic virtues, such as staying informed or serving on a jury, don’t seem as important as they once did,” the report said. The poll repeated questions asked in 1984 about six civic-minded activities: voting, volunteering, serving on a jury, reporting crime, knowing English and keeping informed about news and public issues. Of the six, only voting and volunteering were embraced about as strongly as three decades ago.
It’s sobering to think we have become so disengaged that we are more willing to let others drive the direction of our government and civic affairs while limiting our civic expressions to volunteer activities. Where will the ship of our community go when so many are ready to take their hands off the rudder?
Regardless your political affiliation or your take on a particular issue, there is an opportunity here for leadership that invites us all to action. If you have not yet stepped up into the world of civic expression for the sake of your community, personal beliefs or business concerns, here’s one more motivation – do it to benefit the children in your life. Whether they are kids, grand kids or the neighbor kid down the street, they need to know each of us has the responsibility to be involved in community governance.
There are many ways but let’s focus on two steps to take: do something, and then inform others about your action.
First, doing something. The Austin City Council, like that if any big city, has no scarcity of input. Most of it comes from those with a vested interest – lobbyists, neighborhood groups, social advocacy organizations, etc. — all who have an important role to play, but rarely are the citizens weighing in when it’s not their ox being gored. This space is ready for your civic involvement.
Everyone has a city council member, a county commissioner and a state representative. Pick one and gather phone numbers and email addresses – exactly what you would do in forming a business relationship. Connect to their social media – they all have it.
Don’t start with advocacy, if it is not comfortable. Just follow their issues and make a few comments by email or post. Believe it or not, those in the political world respect and want the same things you do in their communications: politeness, respect, facts and authenticity. That’s why the big efforts to “send a message to Congress” by copied and pasted emails do not have much impact. It looks like grassroots, but the politicos call it Astroturf because it is mass-produced plastic.
The next step is to make a phone call to their office — most of the time you will speak to a member of their staff. Just ask that your opinion (support or opposition) to an action be shared with the elected official.
The media would have you believe the whole world is polarized and no opinions matter except the most extreme. Extreme views gets retweeted, but reasonable views are more effective and we need to be sharing more of these examples. Your opinion matters.
The next step is to inform, making sure your kids and neighbors see your example. It will not be easy to break through the clutter of the Internet, electronic messaging and entertainment blaring through every medium. But those only offer diversion; your path has the power of personal expression, something very important to our kids.
They won’t necessarily understand your stories about making a phone call, creating a post or the other civic actions you take, but they will see it matters to you and, because you do this, you’re kind of a big shot. There’s more to life than what appears on screens. Prove it to them. That’s leadership and our community deserves to know your unique perspective.