Neil Tambe

I'm a Detroiter who happens to enjoy writing, national parks, orange juice, the performing arts, and fanciful socks. More than anything though, I aspire to be a good husband, father, and citizen.

A Civics Idea: "City Council Clubs"

The political system in our United States are highly influenced by special interests. And, we should expect it. But, I have an idea on how to combat this. If you want to go straight to that idea, jump to it. The next section lays out the rationale for this idea. Rationale

Let's use a hypothetical example. A special interest, may gain or lose $1 million after lobbying the government for 100 hours. A regular citizen, when faced with the same issue, might gain or lose $10 after lobbying the government for 100 hours. In situations like this (where a special interest has a lot to gain and regular citizens don't gain or lose much as individuals, for the same amount of effort), regular citizens don't have a real incentive to take action or participate in the political process. They have to expend a lot of effort for something that doesn't affect them much, so regular citizens make a better use of their time.

As a result, special interests rule. Not because they are (necessarily) doing anything wrong or devious, but because the rest of us stay home. This would be fine, except it's not uncommon to the interests of a few to be bad for everyone else.

But what if we could change the balance? There are three ways to do this, as I see it:

  • Give regular citizens more of a stake in the issue (i.e., increase how much regular citizens feel they gain or lose to more than the figurative $10 I've mentioned)
    • I don't think this is possible. It would require telling people what matters to them and forcing them to adopt what you tell them. Even if it was possible, I wouldn't want to do it because it's manipulative and/or coercive.
  • Force people to participate in civics (e.g., require people to vote or attend public meetings)
    • This is possible, except it's somewhat "unamerican" to do this. Also, it would take serious changes to law as it stands today. I don't want to wait that long and I don't have the money to wage this sort of campaign.
  • Lower the effort required to participate in the political process (e.g., knock down the time required for a regular citizen to follow issues. Say making that figurative 100 hours 1 or 2 hours)
    • I like this option. It's possible and it doesn't necessarily cost much. Many people have tried lowering the cost of information, and that's great. unfortunately though, you can't make people consume political information. If it's free (or more free) it might reduce a barrier, but it's still a lot of work.

So, I think I have another idea on how to lower the effort required to participate in the political process. For discussion's sake, I'll call it a "Council Meeting Club."

The Idea: Council Meeting Clubs

I don't have time (or interest) to attend every city council meeting or city commission meeting. The problem is, it's hard to influence the decisions made at meetings you don't attend. Moreover, If you don't influence those meetings and participate, people might (intentionally or unintentionally) make bad decisions on your behalf.

But, I think I could make time for 1 or 2 city council meetings every three months, couldn't you? That's exactly what I want to do.

We have groups of friends already. Our friend groups probably have reasonably similar political interests. I know a lot of yuppies, for example, because I am one. Even if we disagree on things, my friends and I have similar values which tend to give us similar political preferences. So, why don't we all share the load of participating in local government?

Maybe we could each make a group of 15-20 people who are reasonably similar to us in some way - say values, our neighborhood, or some other affinity we share. Then, we create a schedule and everyone in the group attends a city council meeting and reports back what happens to the group in a quick e-mail the next day. Maybe there was an important decision. Maybe in the next week there is a topic being discussed which merits more people attending the meeting. If you make a group, there would always be at least one person there to keep the group informed.

By having this rotation it accomplishes a few things:

  1. The burden is shared across many people, making it easier to stay connected to the political process
  2. By being in a small social group with a modest commitment, everyone has an incentive to participate (because if you drop the ball, you look foolish)
  3. It's more fun, so you get the added value of social interaction by being a part of one of these groups
  4. It's harder to free-ride because if you don't pull your weight, you don't get the information that the group creates

Also, I think you could apply this approach to civic participation and government accountability at any level. I just happen to be using City Council meetings as a backdrop.


Detroiters: Does anyone want to actually try this?

Anyone: If you try something like this, will you let me know how it goes?