To get real answers from real candidates about their efforts to collect our concerns, in early 2016, I asked 475 candidates if they had a plan, what steps their plans included, and how much of their campaign budgets were being allocated. Candidates were running for US Senate or House of Representatives, state Senate or House and county positions – and even president*. (Click here to see candidates' responses.)
Fifty-eight candidates (58) responded. The majority (47) said, “YES, I have a plan” – 41 said they were already implementing their plans. Fantastic!
Here are four reasons why I remain skeptical:
1 – I have never seen a candidate on my doorstep in my lifetime; two residents I surveyed told me candidates had stopped by.
In September 2016, only two out of 114 people who lived in three different communities (wealthy Bellevue, diverse Tukwila, and small Wahkiakum County) told me that they had seen one of their candidates. Busted?
2 – If candidates are collecting concerns, I expect to see tangible results:
a – concerns collected into a final report. I have yet to see evidence of a collection of residents' concerns, especially available for public review. Without that information, how can we hold our elected officials accountable for addressing, or not addressing, our concerns? How can they set long-range plans or prioritize their city, county, school, state, or other weekly/monthly meeting agenda items without that crucial information?
In October 2016, I collected concerns from 100 of my neighbors. I went door-to-door in neighborhoods surrounding where I lived and asked what they wanted their elected officials to work on. I summarized over 300 of their concerns into 23 main categories (listed below).
Their #1 concern? Politicians … don't care about us … represent their wealthy friends, not us … don't respond to, nor communicate with us.
b – concerns being addressed. To see how many of my 100 neighbors' concerns had been addressed during 2016, I reviewed 200 meeting minutes from 9 of my neighbors' 10 elected bodies. Fewer than 6% of 1,221 new policies or laws came close. I cannot say that their other concerns were not addressed – just the ones mentioned to me on those cold, rainy days. Sewer, water and garbage were not on the list, but probably would have been if the city stopped taking care of them.
c – campaign expenses reflecting a commitment. This year, a paltry $25,000 of campaign money was spent in Washington State on surveys and polls (out of $9 million collected and $13 million spent as of 9/25/17). They spent $1 million on one-way communications, “vote for me”, but only $25,000 to hear our concerns? Last year (2016), 18 candidates stated budget allocations from 0% to 100%, 23 stated that allocated time was more important than a budget allocation (4 specified their time allocation, 19 did not), and 18 answers were unclear.
d – active plans for collecting concerns. Most of the candidates' plans were passive for collecting concerns (albeit active for campaigning): 1) No “vote for me” literature in my mailbox or on yard signs, nor campaign advertisements on TV or radio have ever inspired me to tell a candidate my concerns. 2) Town halls and candidates' forums can only reap a handful of concerns in a 2-hour meeting, no matter how many people attend. 3) Bumping into people in grocery stores, or meeting them in cafes will reap a few more concerns, but will yours be collected? 4) Knocking on doors can reap many more concerns; however most candidates don’t knock on doors or ask. I am still upset by one candidate's answer, “When I approach – 10,000 homes every other year – they usually don't have a topic to share with me at that moment.” I find it hard to believe that my 100 neighbors told me over 300 concerns but his 10,000 neighbors don't usually have a topic to share.
Only eight candidates' plans seemed to be actively asking residents' concerns. Of the other plans mentioned: – 26 were passive – 14 were unclear – 5 were waiting until after the election – 2 were expecting a governmental process to do the job – 5 provided no comment
3 – No one I surveyed had been asked by an elected official, either.
No wonder so many of us feel like our voices are not heard and our concerns are not addressed!! But it doesn't have to be that way. We need a better system of collecting our concerns than relying on candidates or elected officials.
To bridge the communication gap between elected officials and those they represent – you and me, I believe our representative democratic process desperately needs an “Issue-Based Community Listening Infrastructure”. This system will bring together ordinary residents to discuss their concerns, collaboratively identify root causes and potential solutions attached to those concerns, and instill the confidence needed to take their concerns and suggestions to our elected officials. It might possibly also produce great candidates who already know us and have been working on our concerns. Imagine that!
4 – Candidates cannot possibly reach everyone in a short campaign season.
The importance of a community listening system is more dramatically demonstrated by the fact that, if candidates allow each person to speak for only ONE minute each, it will take: – 57 years for statewide candidates to listen to all 6.9 million residents in Washington State – 6 years for congressional representatives to listen to all 690,000 residents – 1 month to 7 years for county commissioner candidates to listen to all residents (depending on a county's population) – 1 year for state legislative district senators and representatives to listen to 137,000 people – a ridiculous 2,600 years for presidential candidates to reach 325 million people
Even if a miracle occurred and all of my elected officials did ask me for my concerns every year, I really don't want to tell 48 elected officials the same things. If they do ask, we probably think, "What do I know about city?" and respond accordingly, NOT mentioning our many other concerns – not good. And do NOT expect me, or anyone else, to be able to track all of the issues covered by all of my 10 elected bodies in their 200 public meetings – it's impossible!
We need an effective system of collecting and addressing our concerns. We cannot rely on the few candidates who might ask a few of us and accept that no elected officials ask us for our concerns. We can do much better!
It's our government – I want my government to be OF and BY all the people, not just FOR a select few.
Finally, I asked the candidates a self-serving question: “Do you see any value in having a non-partisan community listening organization bring you your constituents' concerns?”: – 37 said yes – 6 said no – 13 were unclear (11 were supportive of including multiple voices) – 3 provided no comment
Even if candidates answered just to pacify me, I am deeply touched by their thoughtful responses.
Candidates mentioned these benefits of a non-partisan community listening system: 1 – Promote unity by working together toward shared common goals (“to help the many people telling me they need it”). 2 – Assure objectivity (outside of partisanship biases and to ensure that voices other than partisan opposites are included) 3 – Provide: a – a place / format that is less intimidating b – feedback loop to get answers to ignored questions / concerns c – an opportunity to hear diverse input, including concerns, opinions, discussions, solutions, suggestions, complaints, answers, ideas, perspectives d – efficiency (all in one place, consolidated, thereby saving time for electeds and helping residents communicate their ideas) e – accountability from elected officials f – feedback loop to get answers to ignored questions / concerns
Some of the conditions / caveats that candidates mentioned were necessary for success included: 1 – The process must stay non-partisan and unbiased to produce valid results (5 respondents). 2 – A professionally facilitated conversation would have high value because it lets people come together to discuss a specific issue, listen to one another’s different viewpoints, and then compile their agreed-upon perspective. 3 – In addition to receiving the boiled down concerns, one candidate wanted to see the underlying data. “I want to read verbatim discussions that led to these boiled down concerns, and I want to know what concerns didn't 'meet the grade' to be brought to me.” 4 – The process should not be paid for by tax dollars, nor be a barrier to access with elected officials.
The six candidates who opposed a community listening system said that they: – preferred getting concerns directly from constituents or groups that gather to bring concerns and ideas to elected officials – felt it was the governing body's responsibility to solicit and maintain any and all input from its citizens as a public record – wanted to be convinced of the additional value beyond normal communication channels that are available to citizens
Here are the October 2016 concerns that my 100 Tacoma, WA neighbors told me that they wanted their elected officials to work on, in order of most-mentioned in main categories and within categories (out of over 300 comments).
POLITICIANS: they don't care about us or understand our concerns, they don't respond and communicate with us, and they don't represent us but represent their wealthy friends.
PUBLIC EDUCATION: improve academics, fund education, school bus safety, mental health, and nutrition.
POLICE / CRIME: what do they protect and who do they serve, plethora of crime, and resolve officers' racial prejudices.
ROADWAY MAINTENANCE / SAFETY: fix my street's potholes, and safety / accessibility.
COST OF LIVING / LIVING WAGE JOBS / ECONOMY: too expensive, system favors wealthy, create living wage jobs, and economy.
HOMELESSNESS: help them / fix the causes of homelessness (this was from people living in homes), and homeless are littering my street (only 2 comments).
PERSONAL INTERACTIONS: discrimination / equity / bullying, abortion, leadership, and other.
SAFETY: general safety, noise, environment, loiterers, food-GMOs, street trees, and privacy.
INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS: identify conflict exit strategies / declared wars, maintain U.S. borders / define who immigrants are, and spend military funding effectively.
DRUGS: reduce usage (addictions), and other.
PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION: efficient / effective system, and other.
SOCIAL SECURITY / MEDICARE / MEDICAID / DISABILITY / VETERANS: cost of living and healthcare for seniors, better run VA and SS, don't mess with SS and Medicare and where are veterans' disability percentages, and I need a wheelchair ramp on my street.
GOVERNMENT: responsiveness, ethics, needs improving, and other.
HEALTHCARE: costs, and effectiveness.
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*Disclaimer: To limit sending a survey to nearly 1,800 presidential candidates listed with the Federal Election Commission, I sent my survey to the candidates who had raised more than $1 million in campaign funds – 19.