Since high school, I’ve enjoyed observing local government in action. My interest came through necessity: my first job was televising Iowa City’s city council meetings. Then I spent a decade helping North Liberty deliver its government’s message.
In public service, I learned a lot about how local government works, more and less effectively. An early take-away was that the information required for open, public meetings is not really accessible to most people.
The business of city council, for instance, is conducted in formal meetings with a published agenda and packet of documents that’s hundreds of pages long.
Learning about any project requires downloading massive files and scrolling through a lot of legalese and technical drawings.
If someone wants to give input on an issue, it is a long way from finding this raw information to feeling prepared to address elected officials directly.
In addition to the technical hurdles of locating and deciphering information, there are many other barriers to civic engagement: time, transportation, language, literacy, child care. Not to mention that standing up to speak at a podium, live on TV and streamed to Facebook, or sending an email to become a permanent public record, is intimidating.
Engaging with the government can even feel unsafe in our current political climate.
Local government, therefore, must prioritize clear and trustworthy communication of goals, accomplishments, and the constant need for public input.
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It is necessary that the public have access to the same information presented to city council. Just as necessary, though, is that the city provide information that is organized by subject and impact area, presented in layperson’s terms, and delivered in a digestible size and format. Iowa City’s short videos, available online and via email, are a great example of this.
The mobile app called GORequest (branded ICgovXpress) is also a huge step toward easy public engagement.
A well-informed electorate is a prerequisite for democracy, but it is also what ensures its healthy survival. Increased civic engagement has many benefits: trust in societal structures, feelings of belonging to a community, empathy borne from contact with people different from ourselves, mutual accountability based on government transparency, and more people with the skills and experience to lead.
We can, and should, bring local government to the people, show and tell how it works, make engagement easy, and joyfully invite everyone to join in.
Laura Bergus is a candidate for Iowa City Council.