Citizenship Takes the Stage

In a day-long series of lectures and panels, Tanner Day provided a public forum where experts reflected on many of the challenges facing citizenship today.

By Dana Cooke / Kim Bliss

Christine Todd Whitman speaks at Tanner Day Among the dozen-plus speakers at Tanner Day on October 4 was Christine Todd Whitman, former EPA Administrator (2001–03) and former New Jersey Governor.

There was a time, in the early part of the 20th century, when voting was understood to connect citizens' interests to the values held by candidates. "It was believed that the end result would be politics that appealed to the median voter," said Elizabeth Cohen, associate professor of political science at the Maxwell School. A democratic system "would moderate our political outcomes."

"Beginning in the 1950s, however, questions arose as to how accurate this liberal individualist model of citizenship actually was," she added. Among the shortcomings Cohen cited: many voters began to seem "woefully ill-informed about their choices and the likely outcome of those choices" and, for many, values and views waver over time.

Fast-forward to 2017. What is the health and prognosis for citizenship, at a time of declining public trust in government, political polarization, partisanship and incivility, and direct political attacks on government?

That was the over-arching focus of Tanner Day at Maxwell, a day-long forum where Cohen was among 14 multi-sector experts speaking on the future of citizenship and public service. In panels and lectures, they reflected on topics ranging from identity politics to voter turnout, public/private partnerships, data-driven collaboration, and the role of the academy.

"Slapping a bumper sticker on your car . . . may make you feel as if you are making a difference, but it very rarely changes policy."
Christine Todd Whitman

Tanner Day, held October 4, was presented in partnership with the National Academy of Public Administration – Maxwell was one of four schools selected by NAPA to host such events – and made possible by support from W. Lynn Tanner '75 PhD (PA). (Other sponsors were Maxwell's Bantle Chair in Business and Government Policy and Campbell Public Affairs Institute.)

Its keynote speaker was Christine Todd Whitman, former EPA Administrator and New Jersey governor. She cited low voter turnout, especially in primaries (where ideologically extreme voters are more likely to turn out) as fueling polarization. The solution, she suggested, is face-to-face participation by citizens in their communities and political processes. "And this doesn't mean posting a sarcastic remark on Facebook, or a pithy saying on Twitter, or slapping a bumper sticker on your car," she added. "That may make you feel as if you are making a difference, but it very rarely changes policy."

Cohen, in an afternoon panel on threats to citizenship, concurred. "When we're face-to-face," Cohen said, "we know each other; and we know each other's identities and we understand each other and we like each other better than when we are abstract."

Stephen Hagerty '93 MPA, the new mayor of Evanston, Illinois, described bringing government to the people as a means of encouraging citizenship and personal interaction. He has launched a series of meetings, in relatively informal settings, to draw citizens together.

Another thread in the "threats" panel was the role of identity politics and the "left behind" feeling shared by many Americans. Cohen cited studies showing that voters "often react emotionally rather than rationally." Pitting our identities against others creates not individualism, but a tendency "to abandon our principles in favor of emotional attachments," she said.

Maxwell geographer Jamie Winders described how the topic of immigration – "often a proxy for other things" – reveals gaps between abstract beliefs and actual behavior. She reported on her own research, showing that attitudes about immigration held by public school teachers diverge from attitudes implied by the support they provide to immigrants in their communities.

The key to remedying voter unease, said Chris Meek '92 BA (PSc/Econ), a senior director at S&P Global, is addressing economic inequality, best done through public/private partnerships and a business-like approach to governance.

The morning panel addressed the public service workforce, and much of the conversation focused on technology, data, and collaboration. Andrew Maxwell '06 MPA, recent director of policy and innovation for the City of Syracuse, supported "having evidence-based policy making as the foundation for how we advance civic discourse and policy making within communities."

David Sulek '88 BA (PSc), vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton, echoed that idea, noting that data compentency is already a priority in the private sector. He observed that public sector leaders now make decisions faster, yet in an environment of uncertainty and interdependency. Evidence-based policy making is important, he said, "because unlocking the power of data can help solve these dilemmas."

During a lunchtime panel, Dustin Brown '01 MPA, deputy assistant director for management at the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, built on the point about interdependency, describing his efforts to create a 10-person team "whose full-time job is to unlock barriers that exist between agencies." Its work has already realized a $300-million gain for one particular project.

Finally, in the day's closing remarks, Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, agreed that steps are under way to improve technology systems and workforce. He then outlined opportunities for higher education to help. Stier said he would like to see "the entire university drawn into the conversation about what is the right vision for government and the plan of attack. That would be a game changer."

This article appeared in the winter 2018 print edition of Maxwell Perspective © 2018 Maxwell School of Syracuse University. To request a copy, e-mail dlcooke@maxwell.syr.edu.