This country was founded on the principal that people have the right to and should govern themselves. For the government of our nation to function properly, in the fashion that the founders intended, citizens must participate. This professional report will examine the changes in citizen participation in local government and examine methods of citizen participation that have proven successful in some local communities.
Recently there has been growing concern that citizen participation in government has waned for a lack of interest. However, a 1991 study sponsored by the Kettering Foundation, found that citizens are not apathetic about participating in the government process, but are instead frustrated and feel "pushed out" of the decision-making arena. Therefore, it is the responsibility of governments to alleviate that frustration and invite citizens back into the government process. Disillusionment with government among the citizenry has created a disconnect between the government and citizens.
The role of citizens in government has seen many changes over the past half-century. Citizen involvement in local governments in the 1950s manifested itself largely in forms of electoral participation. Then the 1960s exploded onto the scene with disruption techniques in the forms of citizen action. In the later part of the decade citizens' roles were institutionalized by government. Following the turmoil of the 1960s came the grassroots movements in the 1970s, which resulted as a backlash against the attempts at formalization of roles in the 1960s. Citizens were able to regain some influence in this decade, but were still outsiders attempting to change the government. The 1980s was the decade of special interest groups. Like the grassroots movements of the 70s, these groups attempted to alter government by working from the outside. It was not until the 1990s and the advent of performance-based governance that citizens were granted official roles in the decision-making process. Performance-based government has allowed citizens to be involved in the actual strategic planning process.
Many local governments around the country have experienced great success with varying methods for citizen participation. From Dakota County, Minnesota with its use of citizen surveys to Winston-Salem, North Carolina and its use of citizen advisory boards, each community has experienced positive results. Many communities utilize different methods for participation, however, a combination of several methods would enable maximum participation of all interested citizens. The use of multiple techniques can overcome the shortcomings of a single method. A recommended combination of methods includes focus groups, citizen surveys, citizen advisory boards, and town hall meetings. Each of these techniques represents opportunities for citizens of all lifestyles and different time constraints to participate in the governmental process. In order to implement the use of these methods for citizen participation, a local government could create a small department charged with the duty of coordinating these activities. In addition to planning and scheduling the details of the various citizen participation efforts, the "Citizen Participation Coordinating Office" could act as the contact point for citizens and government staff or entities when issues arise.