By Angela Andrews
Several legislators participated in a Learning Circle at the headquarters of the Kettering Foundation in Dayton, Ohio, last November.
They were seeking answers to some important questions often asked by legislators and citizens.
NCSL and Kettering have spent several years coming together to better understand citizen engagement and how state legislators work to improve democracy through purposeful engagement with citizens.
Several legislators who are committed to building dialogue and opportunities for deliberation attended the Learning Circle. They included Senator Les Ihara (D-Hawaii), Representative Susan Westrom, (D-Ky.), Representative Lisa Subeck, (D-Wis.), Representative Joann Ginal (D-Colo.), Senator Bill O’Neil (D-N.M.). Representative Jeni Arndt (D-Colo.) and Senator Judy Lee (R-N.D.). The Learning Circle was the final learning exchange in a series that has been guided by David Holwerk, Kettering's director of communications and resident scholar.
Among the questions they tackled at this meeting were concepts including trying to better understand where the self-interests of citizens and legislators align, who is being engaged and for what purpose, and how to move beyond “checking a box” with citizen engagement.
As the legislators pondered these overarching, democratic themes, they considered the roles of citizens and legislators in the democratic process and tried to identify the ways those roles were unique.
Many of the legislators in this learning circle come from communities where they have developed a culture of continued engagement among the citizens, a culture that has outlasted the terms of several legislators, with newly elected legislators picking up where old legislators left off.
The viewpoint and experience of citizens, some noted, was missing from the conversation.
Though the legislators are also citizens, it was acknowledged that citizens are able to speak and act freely in their roles as citizens, in ways that legislators cannot. Conversely, legislators are stewards or “constitutional officers,” and can initiate or create something that branches of government must act on.
The participants concluded these unique roles are better served when the two groups are able to find ways to move beyond “box checking engagement” and truly deliberate with each other on issues and solutions.
Angela Andrews is a program director in NCSL’s Legislative Staff Services Program, which provides strategic, programmatic and administrative support to the staff professional organizations of NCSL and develops training and information programs for the nation's more than 30,000 legislative staff.