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What Will Civic Engagement Look Like?

Political discourse in this country is broken. To a startling degree, dividing ideologies and sound bites have replaced rational debate. Special interests have replaced constituencies. Scandals and bickering talking heads have replaced reasonable media coverage and context. It’s clear the American public has lost its faith in its elected officials. We’ve all become cynics – about the political process, about the politicians we elect and about the outcomes we can reasonably expect to see. Our politicians have lost their faith in the citizenry, as well. There’s a reason our representatives focus on the issues that divide us and our media echoes those partisan divisions at an ever-increasing volume. We cannot expect our current leadership in Washington to change its demeaning outlook toward fellow citizens. Are Americans are no longer fit for self-governance? Will Our national success – maybe even survival – depend on authoritarians of one kind or another dictating public choices to the rest of us?

Politicians and citizens both recognize that Americans are still fit for self-governance, but this current dysfunction has become the status quo. Elected officials and their constituencies expect this level of partisan dialogue. And while everyone agrees the system is broken and knows we can do better, our expectations are lowered after every election and every failed debate over a major issue.

But what if the public refused to accept those lowered expectations? What if we demanded solutions, not more definitions of the problem? Looming large in the current debate in Washington D.C. is the national debt crisis, and, by extension, the healthcare debate. Most agree these are the major issues facing the country today. How we address them will help to shape how this period in history will be viewed. Citizens can call on political leaders to “value results and action over philosophical purity and power.” Now is the time to demand changes to how our government operates – to shatter the partisan status quo in favor of solutions and civic engagement.

But what exactly would that civic engagement look like? New tools that promote transparency and accountability, as well as new resources for social interaction, will be essential to the way citizens interact with their government. The engagement would be national – affecting every community and calling on every individual to contribute to the process. So it only makes sense to center this new interaction around the healthcare debate – another set of universal needs of the upmost importance. In addition, climate change, immigration, healthcare costs drive the U.S. budget, so it’s a logical jumping off point for several of the most pressing issues facing us today.

Thomas Jefferson wrote: “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.”

Despite the vast amounts of information we consume every day, we are not a well-informed people. Statistics are used to support ideologies, not facts. Every political vantage point has endless studies and reports that support their viewpoint and drag down the conversation. On top of all this, bureaucracy and inefficiency hide the true costs and values of spending and services. Yet new resources and technologies have given the average American unprecedented access to staggering amounts of real, accurate data -- as well as the social tools to share that information in compelling, efficient ways. We now have a vast world of information at our fingertips, and easy methods for taking action within our communities and making our voices heard on a national level.

There is excessive waste in the current healthcare system. These new resources will be essential in eliminating that waste and making stakeholders in the healthcare industry accountable for their actions. If every American spent their healthcare capital a little more wisely, we could significantly reduce costs and spending. But the industry must be transparent enough to allow healthcare consumers to make more intelligent and sustainable decisions. It is that transparency that will help to drive down costs. Citizens4health, an organization of citizens focused on reshaping the healthcare conversation, is attempting to provide the information and advocacy resources necessary to hold insurance companies, hospitals, doctors and patients accountable for their actions.

Citizen-driven solutions to cut down on issues like hospital-acquired infections, excessive testing, over-medication, and a host of other unnecessary costs will be far more subtle and effective than the federal government’s current slash-and-cut strategies that require major ideological compromises. But the American public must be engaged in the debate. We must believe we can affect change in the conversation. The pessimism that pervades virtually every aspect of government and civic engagement must slowly toward optimism. We have the data and tools we need to jump-start this transition. It’s time to stop waiting on a broken system with entrenched ideologies to fix the crises facing our nation and start working together to come up with solutions we can all contribute to.


My Personal Toolbox

What will citizen engagement look like? (Draft)

21st century toolbox (Draft Google Doc)

Shrink the Government

Psychological insight about our politics 


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