Developing Our Civic Culture: State Legislators and Public Engagement

Photo taken at the National Conference of State Legislatures & Kettering Foundation Citizen Engagement Workshop • Dayton, Ohio • July 9-10, 2014

Hawaii state senator Les Ihara Jr. has found many state legislators interested in engaging, deliberating, and collaborating with citizens and stakeholders on public policy issues. Former Kettering Foundation research assistant Jack Becker recently sat down with Senator Ihara to talk about his work in supporting legislators’ citizen engagement interests.

Senator Ihara. has served as majority policy leader with the Hawaii State Legislature since 2006. He entered the Hawaii State House in 1986 and the Hawaii State Senate in 1994. Senator Ihara is helping to organize a National Collaborative Legislators Network to support the state legislators citizen engagement research project of the National Conference of State Legislatures in partnership with the Kettering Foundation. In addition, he cochaired NCSL’s Legislative Effectiveness Committee from 2011 to 2014 and currently serves on the Kettering Foundation’s board of directors.

Jack Becker: When were you first exposed to public engagement?

Senator Ihara: In the late 1990s I attended a public forum using the National Issues Forums Institute (NIFI) framework. Since then I’ve organized a number of NIFI forums in Hawaii on legislative issues, such as gambling, death and dying, and campaign finance. During those forums I experienced public deliberation. A group of citizens were speaking together as a group about their problems rather than advocating a single solution. They were thinking through issues and problems and examining pros and cons. It was more of a learning community than I had experienced before.

At the Kettering Foundation’s 2014 Deliberative Democracy Exchange (DDEx), you said, “To me, citizen engagement is a reflection of the culture.” Could you talk about what you meant by this?

Having been involved with the Kettering Foundation, one of the things we’ve learned is that public engagement practices do not become ongoing until they become part of the culture of a community. If an organization simply does an event, a practice, it often stops. What it takes is a culture that values and has practical use of engagement in the community.

What exists now in society is a reflection of our culture. We’ve lost some of the habits that used to foster engagement. Kettering has learned this working with schools and connecting communities with schools. We’re interested in learning how a community’s culture can evolve to include public engagement practices as part of what it means to be a community.

How have you approached supporting a culture of engagement in Hawaii?

The civic culture in Hawaii doesn’t quite have the capacity to support ongoing engagement practices. Like other cities and states, it is not well developed. I’ve worked with many citizens groups as a member of the legislature, and I provide as much support as I can to them. I’ve created a number of citizen networks and supported others, but community support, funding, and energy for them has not been sustained.

Rather than promoting public engagement because of my interest, I’ve started to focus on the needs and interests of particular communities and demonstrate that engagement can help address their needs. For example, the monthly meetings of Hawaii Legislature’s Kupuna Caucus bring together senior citizen leaders, public and private agencies, and legislators to share information and develop legislation and other actions to address common concerns among our senior citizen community. We’ve been doing this for nine years, and there’s a sense of community among participants. Engaging together feels natural and essential for the well-being of this community.

What issues are ripe for more engagement?

An example would be a zoning issue, a development issue or something that negatively impacts a neighborhood. On these types of issues, engagement is often more reactive, rather than proactive. The opportunity and challenge is to mature the initial negative energy into ongoing efforts to promote the future we want as a community.

It’s unfortunate that it often takes a negative reaction to get people to do something. The reactions we see are a reflection of the culture that exists today. Our civic culture is very critical of government and doesn’t react as a partner with government and institutions, but more so in opposition to them. It would be helpful to have a government that emulates public collaboration in its management of our common resources and spaces. Neighborhoods would then have an important partner to join with in addressing the larger public issues and problems.

Is there some particular role for legislators during these forums?

I did a project in the early 2000s with Kettering examining this question. We were trying to encourage state legislators to conduct public deliberation-type activities and act as conveners for NIF forums. We didn’t yield many results then. Our thought now is to start where legislators are. We first identify the public engagement interests legislators have, and then support those interests. The earlier project focused on encouraging legislators to become interested in what we wanted, which may have been seen as competition for their limited time and resources.

State legislators are focused on state-level public policy issues and legislation. In the NCSL-Kettering project, I’m finding more legislators who have an interest in turning the policymaking process into a collaborative venture. One of my major efforts is to find and identify these types of legislators who have an interest in collaboration and figure out how to support their interests. I do this through a variety of organizations, including the Kettering Foundation, National Conference of State Legislatures, and others.

What are the biggest challenges you face identifying these people and supporting them in this work?

One of the challenges is that it takes time to identify legislators, get to know them, and then support them along the way. It’s a long process, and legislators are busy. But it’s encouraging that the legislators we work with suggest other legislators to contact. So I see promise in building this network.

During legislative sessions, it’s especially hard to get away from legislative work. And so one of the biggest challenges is to find time when legislators are available to meet. Face-to-face meetings are critical to building understanding and support. It is during these meetings that we identify the type of support that legislators want. This is critical.

The other challenge we face is in building capacity within non-legislator networks, such as the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation, so that practitioners can engage legislators as partners and support them with what they need. Since legislative bodies have little capacity for public deliberation type work, the opportunity is to build capacity amongst external partners to provide group facilitation and deliberative experience to legislatures. Another opportunity is to facilitate connections and ongoing relationships between external facilitators and interested legislators.

At DDEx you went on to propose what you called a “collaborative legislators network.” What kind of space or association would this be?

I want to establish a group or network for state legislators from around the county—legislators who have a more collaborative approach to policymaking or want to learn more about being collaborative with citizens and stakeholder groups. What I’ve learned in the last several years is that there is a distinct leadership model that some legislators emulate that is more collaborative. These people use principles of facilitation and a partnership approach with the public when developing policy.

This leadership model is notable because collaborative legislators do this as opposed to wielding power and pushing through legislation with little engagement. The prevailing leadership culture in politics tends to be more about pushing for certain goals and outcomes. I believe there are many politicians who want to embody a more collaborative model. I am very hopeful after our meeting at DDEx that we met some of these people in Dayton, Ohio.

So far, I’ve been in contact with more than 100 legislators who could become part of a national network of legislators interested in public engagement and collaboration. My vision is for this network to become a national community of state legislators that serve as a model for collaborative, problem-solving leadership, as an alternative to traditional power-based leadership.

One of my upcoming projects is to help connect practitioners of public deliberation with legislators. For example, I’ve heard from members of the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation who want legislators to do more public deliberation. My advice is that instead of pursuing this as an item on their agenda, they should start where legislators are and what their interests are. Legislators each have their own story on why and how they ran for office. For many, that includes an interest in an engaged citizenry and healthy democracy, which is a good starting place for practitioners and activists to build a supportive relationship with a legislator.

Jack Becker is a former Kettering Foundation research assistant. He currently works for Denver Public Schools Office of Family and Community Engagement. He can be reached at Follow him on twitter: @jackabecker