If you’ve ever been to a school board meeting, you might not remember the quiet, sensible-sounding person who spoke for the allotted two minutes. But the person who ranted, raved and made a scene probably left an impression.
That’s a problem, say members of Kansas City’s Consensus consulting firm, who spoke Tuesday night at the Dole Institute of Politics, 2350 Petefish Drive.
The nonprofit group shared findings from 20 focus groups, conducted in Lawrence and Kansas City, that asked politically diverse citizens to identify gripes they had with political discourse.
“It doesn’t matter where you come from politically, you have the same complaint about public life,” said Dan Bloom.
Members of the tea party, the NAACP and Johnson County’s MainStream Coalition all had similar complaints: Those with the loudest voices often dominate a debate, the line between fact and opinion is too often blurred, and it seems public officials only seek the public’s opinions after a decision has been made.
“People (feel they) have lost their ability as citizens to make decisions because there are these experts who seem to know so much more than they do,” said Mary Jo Draper, another member of Consensus.
She said focus groups revealed people also feel frustrated by the setup of public meetings. Podiums and fences dividing public officials from citizens give the impression of a divide, and that’s not conducive to an open dialogue.
Consensus said the focus group results not only revealed complaints but also suggestions to improve public discourse. The group said citizens have a responsibility for taking ownership of democracy and to become active and educated on the issues.
“People told us they want to sit down with people they don’t agree with, and they want to understand why people think what they think,” Draper said. “Those values that they bring.”
The group also recommended ditching “democracy by decibels,” giving those with the loudest voices the most attention.
Jennifer Wilding of Consensus encouraged audience members to reach out to public officials and initiate a conversation about changing public discourse.
She said public officials should actively recruit people for public meetings and include them in decision-making process early on, not just once a decision has been narrowed down to two or three choices.
“A few simple, practical changes can make a huge difference in the way we involve the public in public life,” said Wilding.