Many political candidates don't just have a fear of commitment. They have a fear of engagement. But with 2013 being a local government election year, voters should pull no punches in putting the question about committing to public engagement to the people who want their votes. Contrary to the immortal words of the ultimate Meatloaf song, we can't just sleep on it. We want to know: what's it gonna be, yes or no?
So often, we clamor to know how a candidate will vote on an issue he or she hasn't yet faced. We provide hypothetical circumstances that we want them to imagine are real. Sure, plenty of politicians pick and choose issues about which they will shake their fist and blurt out a reliable yes or no (consider how few elected folks waffled on the Affordable Care Act; most knew what they wanted, the issue was whether they'd vote for what came before them). But mostly, we've come to accept as routine a refusal to comply with such a demand. It's truly rare to see courage rear it's head and and expose itself through the voice of a political wannabe as he or she, instead, silently calculates the local vote count that can be earned by resisting commitment.
Now, with the fear of engagement, there is hope. At least, I have hope.
Why do I have hope? Because there's simply no turning back the tide of demand for engagement, tools for meeting that demand for engagement and recognition that we're on the verge of hitting a tipping point in leveraging that demand and employing those tools. The more than 500 of 535 Members of Congress who are on Twitter testify to the expectation that You Will Be On Twitter (or Facebook, or have a website and so on). (Of course, as Dan highlights, just because you have a Twitter handle doesn't mean you're actually engaging. But what politicians think is engagement versus what we think is engagement is a topic for another post.)
Momentum aside, what emboldens my optimism about our ability to increase authentic engagement is the success I've seen when we encourage voters to pose a question to the candidate. And then? They do.
In Northeast Ohio, I can think of at least two very specific circumstances when this tactic worked and involved relentless media, social media and public demand for certain action. The first had to do with ending the commissioner form of county government because of the corruption it bred and fed. As a result of evidence that couldn't be ignored and coverage that could not be avoided, political will (albeit by several relative insiders) won enormous, widespread and broad-based support to scrap an entire public body and swap it for a structure that was in use in only one of the other 87 counties in Ohio.
The second example turns on the cumulative effect of civic debate around a particular topic, in this instance, regionalism. Highly respected Plain Dealer editor, Joe Frolik, wrote this Sunday paper Forum column in June 2011, "Consolidation question should be uppermost of voters' minds." The crux:
Summer arrives Tuesday, but election season is already under way across Northeast Ohio. Candidates for mayors and city councils began pulling petitions in the dead of winter to meet this month's filing deadline for September primaries.
So if you haven't yet had a local candidate knock on your door or interrupt your yard work, you soon may. When that happens, let me suggest a question -- one that my colleagues on the editorial board and I will certainly pose when we interview candidates seeking The Plain Dealer's endorsement this fall:
"What collaborations, consolidations or mergers of city services will you pursue if elected?"
If the answer is something along the lines of "None that I can think of," or "No, we're good," end the conversation right there.
And there are forms of this kind of pressure in all election cycles. One well-known mechanism is the League of Women Voters' SmartVoter.org. Through that tool, the LWV asks candidates to commit responses to very specific questions, and a failure to do so implies a lack of engagement that's rarely favorable in part because of the longevity and credibility of the LWV. But additionally, a community's paper of record and hyperlocal outlets (you can see my own memorialization from when I was candidate in 2009 for the city council seat I now hold) provide opportunities to press candidates on different topics and let voters act accordingly, through their voting rights or - hey, I know! - engaging with a candidate or the candidate's campaign directly, on the web, by phone, email or in-person.
Fast forward to just this past weekend and, after reading an email from Steve Clift that was sent to a forum on his e-democracy.org site, I immediately recalled Joe's column, and even more so, his technique for holding political candidates accountable: be direct. Steve's subject matter? Open government and open data, which got a big hell yeah from me and then an additional, "what about public engagement?"
I am convinced that, just as Joe indicated that the PD editorial board would ask every candidate in 2011 to address regionalism head-on, so too can that editorial board and all the local outlets and all the online questionnaires - and the Civic Commons - expect candidates to address open government, open data, and public engagement. It is past the time when these topics should be on every survey that candidates must complete, and additionally on the consciousness of every voter who gets a live human call or a door knock from a political candidate or a campaign volunteer or staffer and can ask the same of those individuals. This kind of collaboration, between the public, traditional media, new media and social media, is more achievable than ever, and more capable of having an effect than ever.
Now all we have to do is go out and ask.
Copyright © 2013 Jill Miller Zimon; available under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License.
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