As Kansas City’s government transitions to the incoming City Council, citizen satisfaction stands at nearly an all-time high. But if this council wants to succeed in cultivating an equitable, effectual government, it must actively engage the quiet 89 percent — the majority of Kansas City residents who did not vote.
The citizen satisfaction results were impressive. But I worry about an inherent bias of the “participating class.” The group more likely to vote and participate is likely also the group most inclined to respond.
Despite this purported level of satisfaction, too many parts of the East Side resemble a demilitarized zone, our city remains racially segregated and too many families are trapped in poverty. Of Kansas City’s 470,800 residents, fewer than 33,000 registered voters (11 to 12 percent; 7 percent of the population) cast ballots in April’s mayoral primary and only 34,100 (11 percent of registered voters, 7.2 percent of the total population) voted in the mayoral general.
When council candidates campaigned this season on such “bold” agendas as getting “back to basics” and supporting “fiscal responsibility” and “public safety,” it is no wonder that people had no interest in voting. And if I have to hear another politician’s vacant promise to “create new jobs,” without any plan to do so, I’m going to puke.
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If this ambitious lot had bothered to reach out to anyone but likely frequent municipal voters, we might have had a higher turnout. If the only major concerns of this council turn out to be Kansas City International Airport, Kemper Arena and a convention hotel (also known as well-off, white people problems), then Kansas City’s working poor face another four years behind and in debt.
We have to give these candidates a pass. They were the best that we deserved given that they were the only ones who stood up to run. But if they cannot work together and join Mayor Sly James in crafting a measurable, data-driven agenda, we are in trouble.
We can no longer depend on federal and state money or programming as in the past, leaving local government to provide more basic social services. But if we want local programs to work, we need to invest in reaching out directly to our citizens at large.
I propose that the city hire community organizers and community builders to gather data on (1) the needs of the residents, (2) social assets existing in those communities that could help neighborhoods solve their own problems without the government, and (3) ideas from the residents on what services they actually want or need.
These community organizers will directly connect residents to local, state, federal and nonprofit programs that might assist residents with their needs and help them navigate and fully use such programs. Most importantly, these organizers will train and assist residents to become their own advocates to City Hall by increasing their participation and to connect City Hall’s resources directly to those in need of them.
The data from these residents alone will make our government more effective. It’s time we invest in direct outreach for data collection and scientific testing to determine the benefits of narrowly tailored government services and ensure taxpayer assistance is more likely to meet its goals.
We’ve already seen the direct and astounding success of local public-private partnership engaging residents on a person-to-person level through the Kansas City No Violence Alliance, or KC NoVa, to dramatically decrease the murder rate. Now what if we gave every poor family in Kansas City the same attention we give to known offenders and their associates?
Brian Noland of Kansas City is a lawyer and civic activist who has worked in political campaigns for Mayor Sly James and President Barack Obama, among others. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.