Low voter turnout. Low civic trust. An idea for change.

Low voter turnout. Low civic trust. An idea for change.

The way it looks to me, we’re facing a crisis in our democracy. And I don’t just mean Donald Trump, the partisan divide, or gaping inequality (as serious as those are). Collectively, in NYC and far beyond, we aren’t taking good care of our democracy.

We’ve got embarrassingly low voter turnout (last September, just 15% of voters showed up for the NYC primary elections that selected citywide leaders). Steep declines in civic trust, especially in government. Here in NYC, according to the census, we’ve even got some of the lowest levels of volunteerism. A crisis of civic participation.    

And yet, at the same time, more people are engaged in civic action than at any time in recent decades. Attending rallies and protests, calling Members of Congress, or supporting campaigns such as Black Lives Matter, the Fight for $15, or citizenship for Dreamers. Look at our young people, organizing the March for Our Lives, and Saturday’s #ThisIsZeroHour Climate March (led by our community’s own Ilana Cohen). Through participatory budgeting, over 100,000 New Yorkers helped shape the future of their neighborhoods.

There’s a great hunger to get involved, to work together with our neighbors, across lines of difference, to solve problems, pitch in, and make our city better. But too many New Yorkers don’t know where to start. We can, we must do far more to strengthen civic participation, if we want a strong democracy in our city.

That’s the idea behind the call for a NYC Office of Civic Engagement, which I proposed last fall (with legislation and in an Op-Ed in the New York Daily News), and encouraged the New York City Charter Revision Commission to consider this spring, along with an expansion of participatory budgeting. (For some fun background on Charter Revision, including one of my mentors, Fritz Schwarz, read this great NY Magazine article).

So I’m very pleased to report that the Charter Revision Commission dedicated a chapter of its newly-released preliminary report to NYC’s crisis of civic engagement, and is closely exploring our proposal.

A strong, independent NYC Office of Civic Engagement would help New Yorkers to participate in a broader set of civic responsibilities beyond voting and jury duty. It would bring together existing public, private, and not-for-profit efforts to register & encourage voting, support volunteering & civic service years, and join community boards & other civic bodies (like library, parks, plaza, and homeless shelter friends groups).

It could expand participatory budgeting citywide (as Paris, Madrid, and Vallejo CA have done), with a dedicated budget line and organizing staff.  

The new office would build trust in our institutions across lines of difference, pilot new programs, and expand existing ones. It would help New Yorkers develop leadership skills and experience; and work with residents of our diverse communities to co-create concrete initiatives to strengthen our city.

Sounds good, right? So will you help with a little civic participation to make it happen?

  1. Sign the petition to support a NYC Office of Civic Engagement (ok, I know online petitions are a pretty weak form of civic engagement, but it’s a good place to start), and offer you ideas about what it should do.
  2. Attend the Charter Revision Commission Brooklyn public hearing next Wednesday, July 25 at 6pm at St. Francis College, 4305, 180 Remsen St, Brooklyn, NY 11201. (This is also a great opportunity to show your support for bringing Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) to NYC to avoid costly, low-turnout run-off elections, and to discuss the other ideas the Commission put forward in their report).
  3. Forward this e-mail to five friends who you think might be interested in strengthening civic participation in NYC. Online or offline, reaching out to get people involved is the fundamental way we can build connections and strengthen civic ties.

I know that creating a NYC Office of Civic Engagement won’t magically reverse low voter turnout or restore trust in government.

But I’ve seen what we can make happen, when we come together, so I know what we’re capable of. We are capable of acting together to strengthen our democracy. The NYC Office of Civic Engagement would be one very useful tool.