22nd Alaska State Legislature
Public Process Should Be Part of Representational Democracy
For Immediate Release: February 28, 2001
By: Senator Dave Donley
While public participation in the public policy decision process should be maximized, it should not be a substitute for representational democracy. Representational democracy is the system of electing leaders to make important public policy decisions and is the core of government in America. But there is a movement to replace representational democracy with government by a so called "public process" or "participatory democracy" which is often dominated by special interest.
Special Interests Are Using "Public Process" to Wrongly Manipulate Government
Professor Alan Rosenthal of Rutgers University in his recent book "The Decline of Representative Democracy: Process, Participation, and Power in State Legislatures" concludes that the current movement toward a so called "participatory democracy" is not necessarily a cure for the perceived failings of representative democracy. He suggests that organized interest groups oftentimes manipulate the public using well planned and coordinated public relations campaigns. In fact, he finds that while using the facade of greater civic participation, some interest groups have even gone so far as to support antidemocratic positions. Further, he suggests that though they purport to broaden participation through grass roots lobbying, interest groups are aimed more at intimidating elected officials than they are at encouraging improved communications with them. Rosenthal believes too that some interest groups are successfully using the "public process" to bypass the deliberate nature of the legislative process - a process designed to consider broad political and policy implications before public policies are set.
An Example From Anchorage - The Anchorage Comprehensive Plan
The civic debate over the public process and its role in public policy-making, which is currently being waged in Anchorage, is tremendously important. I am grateful to the over 250 citizens of Anchorage that volunteered to be involved in the development of the new Anchorage Comprehensive plan. Although I strongly believe in public participation in the decision process, in 1999 I became increasingly concerned with the tone of the debate over Mayor Mystrom's decision to withhold the plan while further developing its contents before putting it before the Assembly and the public for final consideration. Yes, it was unfortunate that the rules of the process seemingly changed halfway through that endeavor, but it was appropriate for our elected Mayor to take the lead in producing a proposed comprehensive plan for the public and Assembly to consider for final approval. After all, he was the chief elected local official who was elected by a majority of Anchorage voters to assume this type of responsibility.
To me, this is the crux of the issue - the Mayor was elected. We live in a representative democracy. A form of government where the people vote on who will lead our government and protect our interests. We do not always agree with our elected officials but, if the voters feel strongly enough, representative democracy ensures that they will be accountable at the next election. The decision of elected officials in a representative democracy, such as those involving the comprehensive plan, are ultimately accountable to the voters.
Elected Officials Are Accountable While Public Participants Are Not
However, "volunteers" or appointed members of various interest groups who may greatly influence municipal staff on the plan, are not elected officials. They are not accountable to the public. They are not subjected to strict ethics laws, nor do they need to declare conflicts of interest. Appointing the proposed special committee of 12 citizens chosen from various interest groups, as some on the Anchorage Assembly suggested, would create a situation giving too much power to special interest groups. Just think of the unfair and unbalanced situation that could occur if people who support lowering property taxes made up 80% of the population while people who wanted increased taxes and services made up 20% of the population, yet each was given an equal place at the table to impact the decision making process. Where is the balance in this form of representation and process? By giving so much weight to the voices of a few in policy making decisions, unelected oligarchies (government by a few) are created. This actually reduces governmental accountability to the average citizen and consequently erodes the foundations of American style democracy.
Even in the most open public process not enough "average" citizens typically participate to give an accurate picture of the feeling of the majority of citizens. Special interest groups and individuals with financial interests frequently dominate the process. This is why the average citizen, as our founding fathers had envisioned, is represented by elected officials who should protect the average citizens' interests in making policy choices. Those elected officials in turn are accountable to the average citizen through the election and re-election process.
Interests of Average Citizen Losing Out to Active Special Interests
Do not misinterpret my thoughts on this matter as being against public process. I very much believe that public process and public hearings are tremendously important. Open government is key to democracy and public participation enhances the chances of deciding a positive policy direction while helping to build community consensus. However, I believe that there is a clear distinction between a public process that guarantees open public hearings and encourages written public comments and one that empowers a few people on an advisory committee or a volunteer group to disproportionately impact policy decisions. Excessive decision-making power in the hands of non-elected individuals undermines the fundamental nature of representative democracy. Sometimes community consensus is not always possible and decisions for the greater good for the majority need to go forward even in the face of legitimate disagreement by a smaller but highly motivated group.
In conclusion, key public policy decisions should be made by publicly accountable elected public officials. Public officials who have been through the election/campaign process, are subject to extensive ethics laws and must declare conflicts of interest. If citizens determine those decisions are wrong, they may vote those officials out of office. With policy advisory committees representing special interests, the public has no such opportunity. Special committee input is no doubt valuable and welcomed, but elected officials have greater public accountability. All elected officials have successfully gone through an extensive campaign/election process and have sworn an oath to serve the public while special committee members and others have not. To preserve accountability and protect the interests of all citizens, it is the elected public officials who, with appropriate public input, should and must ultimately decide public policy.
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