At a time when the internet and social media seem to be tearing our politics apart, where violent ideology and moral outrage enflame partisan divisions, the democratic promise of information technology is making an appearance in the House Natural Resources Committee. Committee Chair Raúl M. Grijalva and Representative A. Donald McEachin have opened the public participation phase of their Environmental Justice for All Act.
In 2018, Grijvala and McEachin organized an Environmental Justice Working Group (EJWG), bringing together environmental justice leaders and activists to provide community-driven input on legislative recommendations, outreach and inclusion strategies. Since then, and with the work of over 200 organizations, Principles for Environmental Justice Legislation have been developed and corresponding language has been prepared for public comment.
The public participation phase is engineered through Popvox.com, an interactive platform for collaboration and public input. Think of it as crowd sourcing legislation, where the information, expertise and experience of ordinary people can shape and inform public policy. Civic networking pioneer Beth Simone Noveck, now professor and director of New York University’s Governance Lab, was among the earliest advocates of connecting the expertise available in the public with the professional and legal standards of decision-makers who need it.
Collaborative governance projects like the Environmental Justice for All Act have the potential to avoid both the excessive reliance on elite decision makers that typically characterizes the legislative process, as well as the chaotic noise of populist aggression. In Novecks’ words, the goal of discernible, structured collaboration like that developed by the Natural Resources Committee is to “transform the subjective, free-wheeling, dynamic expertise of amateurs into effective communities of experts.”
Similar to the peer-review process, civic software like Popvox facilitates the aggregation of local knowledge and expertise, inviting environmental justice communities, public health experts and scientists across numerous fields to revise and upgrade policy recommendations and language. A key feature is the Natural Resources Committee’s provision of principles for environmental justice action and all the work that has gone into the draft language. The structuring of the sections provides clarity on the topics and questions addressed to the public, and the process provides far greater transparency and accountability than is typical in the policymaking process.
The Environmental Justice for All Act signals the evolution of our democratic institutions and a concrete advancement of innovative governing principles. Not since the 16th Century evolution of popular referendums and initiatives in the Swiss Cantons, considered at the time “an experiment in total democracy, in continuous revolution, and anarchism,” has there been such a potentially transformative innovation in popular sovereignty. Today, most political scientists recognize many shortcomings in the use of direct democracy in U.S. states: popular initiatives are a blunt majoritarian tool, with no protections for minorities, and the process of getting an initiative qualified for the ballot is itself often dominated by powerful elites.
The more inclusive, participatory design of collaborative governance projects like the Environmental Justice for All Act expand the role of citizens beyond elections, giving us all a seat at the table in formulating policy and addressing the challenges our communities face. As Representative McEachin commented on the opening of the public comment period:
“Environmental justice is a national priority, and Chairman Grijalva and I are determined to champion fairer policies and more open processes. I look forward to continuing to receive feedback on this draft legislation and introducing a bill that is truly of the people, by the people, and for the people. We must and we will ensure that our society becomes clean, healthy, and sustainable for all.”
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