On Tuesday, July 23, the Commission on Political Reform hosted a National Conversation on Public Service at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. This event was the second in a series of national conversations highlighting opportunities for reform of our political system. Below is one of a series of posts by BPC summer interns reflecting on their experiences at the event.
As a Democracy Project intern, I had the privilege of watching the preparations unfold over a series of months prior to the conversation itself. It was enormously gratifying to see the Commission’s hard work come to fruition. The amount of work that the commissioners and commission staff put in to organizing this conversation was staggering – from designing the joint BPC/USA Today poll, to organizing the speaker lineup for the Town Hall, to coordinating the Youth Lunch, every aspect of the event was thoroughly and meticulously planned.
I arrived in Philadelphia in time for the Youth Lunch. I was seated with Governor Kempthorne, Chris Marvin, and a number of fellow students interested in public service. Governor Granholm took center stage to remark on the importance of public service. Nobody, she said, enters public service for themselves. People enter public service, and often make real sacrifices to do so, not out of self interest but out of a real conviction that their actions can do good for the world.
Governor Granholm then introduced to us some of the commissioners who had dedicated their lives to public service. Molly Barker, the founder of Girls on the Run, had a particularly inspiring story to tell. Girls on the Run is an organization devoted to improving the lives of young girls through physical activity. Barker spoke movingly about the story of Chakira, a girl in her program who had faced difficult life circumstances, and about the way that Girls on the Run provided a safe place for Chakira to grow and recover.
After the Youth Lunch, I made my way to the auditorium for the headline event, the National Conversation on Public Service. A panel of devoted public servants discussed the current state of service in America. One recurring theme throughout the conversation was the importance of civic education. The panelists agreed that bolstering civic education was truly the key to creating a new generation of publicly-minded and publicly-active citizens.
One of the striking qualities of the panel was the seamless way that technology and social media was integrated into the conversation. Thoughtful Tweets reflecting on the remarks were displayed onstage, and polls of online viewers on subjects ranging from women in leadership to the efficacy of state governments helped direct the conversation. The event was live-streamed, and many of the questions answered by the panelists were asked via Twitter. The use of technology helped broaden the conversation to include people who were interested in public service, but could not attend the Philadelphia event.
The National Conversation on Public Service provided some deep and meaningful reflections on the nature and role of public service in America. I look forward to future events exploring other areas of our political system.
While “town halls” are touted as rare opportunities for the public to interact and converse with local and national leaders, they often turn into carefully planned and scripted affairs, filled with prepackaged questions, concerns, and opinions. Yet, as seen at BPC’s “National Conversation on Public Service” event, interactive social media is helping to make town halls a true conversation between everyday Americans and leaders.
Held at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia on July 22, 2013, “A National Conversation on Public Service,” was second in a series of BPC’s Commission on Political Reform and USA Today’s “National Conversations on American Unity.” The event discussed the current state of political polarization in the United States and its effects on our participation in the democratic process as well as public service.
After opening remarks by Jeffrey Rosen, Mayor Michael Nutter, Senator Olympia Snowe, two panels of highly distinguished elected officials, community, business, and public service leaders lent their voices to a packed audience.
Although political heavyweights like Senator Trent Lott, Secretary Margaret Spellings, Governors Granholm, Kempthorne and Rendell lined the stage, the real headliners of the afternoon event were the audience members.
The audience was encouraged to pose questions and comments on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram throughout the event, with many of the tweets appearing live-time on stage. Questions submitted via the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Facebook page as well as through the #EngageUSA hashtag on Twitter were presented by the moderator to the panelists during the first panel. Perhaps the most innovative aspect of the event was the live polling feature. The Bipartisan Policy Center posed several questions throughout the event, asking audience members to vote. Within a few minutes, the results would be displayed on stage, complementing the discussion.
By introducing this social media grandstand, the Bipartisan Policy Center truly made this “National Conversation on Public Service” a two-way conversation.
Our Founders are routinely lauded in our political discourse. Their writings and musings are frequently referenced, and their many accomplishments are often mentioned as a means of instilling in Americans the lesson that in America, no challenge is too monumental to overcome.
But, this week, as I walked across the plaza in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, I could not help but fear that America has stopped living up to the Founders’ expectations. I worry that we have lost the ability to produce solutions to big problems.
Indeed, the Founders despised rashness, and formed a deliberative and methodical system. They created separate branches of government, separate chambers within the legislature, and a federalist structure that further divided power between the federal government and states. However, the Founders did not design the system to be dysfunctional. They wanted limited government, not zero government. And they wanted a government that could handle passionate disagreement between leaders.
The Founders themselves harbored disparate views, and they often acted passionately to advocate these views—canings, deadly duels, and disparaging insults helped define eighteenth century politics. A little historical inquiry even makes the current dysfunction in Washington seem tame.
But, the contrast between then and now is that today, even though our system is devoid of duels, we have lost the capacity to deal with disagreement. While the Founders transcended ideological disparities and reached consensus on issues, this dynamic is too often not the reality today. Yes, we still disagree—profoundly, in fact—but now ideological divergence seems to be the end game. Maybe our system has lost its luster, or maybe it is a lack of leadership, or maybe it is a result of an explosion of money in politics. No single scholar or group is certain. But, in Philadelphia this week, a group of leaders came together to try to figure it out.
This week, the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Commission on Political Reform came to Philadelphia to discuss public service. How can citizens engage with their communities and their country? How can ordinary Americans help forge a more perfect union, and encourage their elected leaders to produce compromise?
Over the course of the two-day event, I met personally with many of the Commissioners, and discussed with them how young people can get involved in their democracy, and how Millennials can best serve their country.
The many insights were all profound, but I gleaned one overarching lesson: American youth will get the government they demand. If meaningful solutions to big challenges are what Millennials want, then young people must elect leaders who will produce these solutions. And, if it is compromise that Millennials demand, we must elect leaders who will not abandon their respective ideology, but who will work with other leaders to find consensus on issues that cannot be left unaddressed. American youth have the most to lose as a result of the current state of legislative paralysis. Millennials are stakeholders, and therefore we, too, must demand a seat at the table.