October 22, 2014

Linking the Public with Policymakers

The Concord Coalition is currently engaging in a Fiscal Stewardship Project that takes us to select cities across the country. This project is designed as a follow-up to our Fiscal Wake-Up Tour visits in those cities and as part of that we have created local Fiscal Advisory Councils (F.A.C.'s) -- groups of local citizens interested in doing more to promote and discuss fiscal responsibility. These councils meet regularly and are focused not only on talking about our fiscal future, but also in discussing possible solutions to our long-term budget challenge.

One of the event types we conduct in conjunction with these F.A.C. meetings is called a "Choice Dialogue." These are day-long public forums where randomly selected individuals, from the cities where the F.A.C.'s are located, come together to work through the information about our fiscal challenge and coalesce around common values and solutions. The goal is for the conclusions they reach to then be presented to the F.A.C. members, who then undergo a lengthy dialogue of their own, so that the ideas and solutions the F.A.C. coalesces around can truly be said to be informed by community thoughts and desires, and thus weigh more heavily on the minds of the politicians representing that community.

Last fall, The Concord Coalition, in collaboration with Viewpoint Learning, released a report highlighting the public consensus that emerged after an initial two-year long study of residents in various cities across the nation who underwent similar dialogues. The results suggested that Americans around the country are willing to make required sacrifices in order to improve our nation's fiscal imbalance. We hope our F.A.C.'s will be able to put some "meat on the bones" of this general willingness.

On May 9, in Atlanta, I was able to witness my first "Choice Dialogue" session in conjunction with our F.A.C. process and watch the remarkable metamorphosis that occurs during these public forums.

It was clear throughout the process that participants changed their opinions on various subjects when they organized into smaller groups of five to addres the fiscal challenges. Most fascinating to me was that while eager to address the problems, the plans put forward by some of the groups on huge four-feet by two-feet pieces of paper tended to contain some contradictions -- such as wishing tax rates remained the same, while not cutting spending, while still reducing the national debt.

This process exemplifies that while we often give politicians a hard time for claiming "we can have it all," while ducking hard choices, the do get mixed messages from the public. This underscores the difficult job facing our F.A.C.'s as they not only need to take this sometimes contradictory information into account from the general public, but also need to agree amongst themselves what their goals are and what solutions they want to take to their representatives.

It also shows the difficult job facing our policymakers in Washington and in our own states. Between the competing interests of their constituents, the fear of disappointing one portion of their constituency or being "unelected" (as I like to call it), and the lack of support they often have from their colleagues to make the hard choices -- it is not exactly easy work, particularly in such troubled fiscal times.

--Jennifer Perkins, Fiscal Stewardship Project Director