In my column last week, I noted the striking increase in the number of Mainers who checked the “I don’t know” box in survey responses to all manner of important public policy questions. Given the complexity of the issues we face — How do we get the energy we need without destroying our environment? How do we prevent overly generous government pensions in Greece from dragging down the global economy? — such confusion is understandable.

Plus, anger directed toward elected and appointed officials who should have foreseen and prevented the disasters that have befallen us is equally understandable.

It is hardly surprising that a recent study of national attitudes toward government conducted by the Pew Center for the People and the Press is titled “Distrust, Discontent, Anger and Partisan Rancor.”

But a danger greater than distrust and discontent is disengagement. If we follow our “I just don’t know” with a “So I won’t do anything,” then we really are defeated.

If fewer and fewer of us bother to participate in the selection process that gives us those officials with whom we are so angry and those laws and regulations that have proven so inadequate, then how are we going to get any different results?

In my own town of York, only about one-quarter of registered voters participated in the decision to spend $45 million that we collect from one another. And only 2 percent of us showed up at the town meeting mandated by state law to put the $25 million school budget on the election ballot.

Does this lack of participation indicate full agreement with the proposals presented by our elected officials? I doubt it, but I really can’t know. And it certainly hasn’t been accompanied by the disappearance of all complaining.

Two images stand out for me concerning these questions of disengagement and getting beyond “I just don’t know.”

The first is Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal standing in a skiff just off the shore of a despoiled marsh dripping oil onto his clean dress shirt crying, “The booms don’t work; we just need someone to let us dredge sand and try barrier islands.”

The second is innovation guru Doug Hall striding across the stage at the University of Southern Maine, gesticulating with equal fervor and shouting, “The key to successful innovation is speeding up your rate of failure.”

And what is true for engineering is equally true for democracy.

We must try new ways to engage people in the process of public decision-making. Many may not work. OK, then we’ll have to try others. But let’s not let the structure of the election cycle force us to wait a year before we try that something else. Let’s note a failure and move on. Let’s not get mad, let’s get better.

Over the years, I have been privileged to work with a number of community-based citizen committees. Composed of residents, business owners, employees, municipal, regional and sometimes state officials, these groups represent our best avenue for social innovation.

Not all work. But when they do, they work well. Like athletic teams, they need an interconnected balance of skills and experience plus a certain internal “chemistry” to be successful.

They combine experts in specific fields — traffic flow, business location considerations, environmental conditions — with “we’ve lived here; we know the skeletons in the closets and how things really work” locals who care deeply about their communities and are determined to see efforts at improvement through to completion.

Participating in such groups isn’t a duty; it’s a passion. This form of civic engagement doesn’t require millions of dollars of slick and simple-minded TV ads to sway us to action. Getting to work for one doesn’t require a $100,000 college degree and a lifetime of student loans.

Volunteer citizen groups are one of the few places where young and old, natives and those from away are equally welcome and equally valuable.

Most importantly, community-based volunteer organizations are one of the few institutions where individuals can say what the problem is, propose a solution and get immediate feedback from citizen colleagues.

Just as we need to invest more in the physical laboratories of scientific research and development, so must we invest more in the social laboratories of public policy research and development.

 

Charles Lawton is senior economist for Planning Decisions, a public policy research firm. He can be reached at:

[email protected]