This is the time of year when many people make donations to charities. This year it’s more overwhelming than ever. There are so many needs, so many clear and present threats — to our planet, to justice, to human dignity and human life. My family and I are going to write checks to more organizations than ever, and will wrap it up feeling like there are so many more we still want to help.
And yet, I can’t shake the feeling that underpinning all of these needs is the erosion of the public’s faith in democracy. Why has the voting public, in the US and elsewhere, installed populists leading us off a cliff? While there is no single reason, it’s undeniable that government just isn’t working for far too many people in these countries, including ours. Economic policies are serving other interests, our justice system is not truly just, and interacting with government too often requires the patience of a saint. It’s more than an inconvenience — many of the same dysfunctions that result in long waits at the post office or the DMV also contribute to high rates of incarceration and low rates of participation in critical safety net programs, outcomes that affect us all as taxpayers and concerned citizens and often affect vulnerable people tragically. When these dysfunctions persist at scale, people get frustrated with more than just our government functions — they start to accept and even admire those who flout our system of government. We are paying a high price for neglecting the machinery of our government, and that price is rising.
This dysfunction in government has cascading impacts, which can present a threat to our democracy itself. I learned something revealing this year: Joe Soss, a professor of political science at the University of Minnesota, found that participating in means-tested benefits (benefits in which you must essentially prove you are poor enough to qualify) significantly reduces the chance you will vote. Our teams at Code for America who work on improving the efficiency, effectiveness, and (probably most importantly) the dignity of the experience of applying for these benefits know full well what this connection is about. So do the millions of Americans who need a helping hand but face a mountain administrative barriers — and often a tone of disdain. As Soss says, what you learn about government when you apply for benefits gets carried over to your faith in political participation. We can’t afford this downward spiral of poor service leading to decreased political participation, which in turn erodes the accountability that’s the cornerstone of democracy.
So while there’s an urgent need to help fix the symptoms of this erosion of trust in our democratically elected institutions, let’s not forget to work on the root causes. We can’t market our way out of this; we have to actually make government work for people in ways they can see and feel, in their own lives. Helping governments use the principles and practices of the digital age to improve service delivery is foundational; it’s from there, in partnership with the millions of public servants who care deeply about serving the country, that we can recapture the public’s trust. And we move out from there to make regulation, defense, education, and other critical functions work for the American people as well.
If democracy matters to you, please consider supporting the work of Code for America, among the many other worthy causes, this holiday season. Our work not only helps real people in need—over a million of them in 2019 alone—it also proves that government can work for people, and by people, not just in this digital age, but in a democracy.
We can’t afford to believe otherwise.
Your support of Code for America will help us. Donate here.
PS: For more on what Code for America did in 2019, and a bit about our ambitious agenda for 2020, read this.