With the passage of the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan, Americans are seeing some relief during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the upcoming infrastructure policy package plans to go beyond relief, and even past recovery and reform.
We are facing a major inflection point. The climate crisis - a slow-moving problem - combined with America’s crumbling public digital and physical infrastructure is unraveling before us under the banner of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the end is in sight, most of the American public will still be reeling from its effects well into the future. It’s been four years since an infrastructure bill passed congress - during this time we’ve experienced destabilizing domestic events which culminated in the insurrection of the U.S. Capitol Building on January 6th. Each of these crises, climate change, deteriorating public infrastructure and the COVID-19 pandemic provides a unique opportunity for change, culminating in the ultimate opportunity for this infrastructure policy package to have transformational potential. It’s clear that America needs something by the way of recovery and reform and while we haven’t seen the confluence of these exact influences before, we have the advantage of knowing them, and knowing, with some degree of certainty, what policies will have a positive effect.
Our public infrastructure can be broken down into three categories: basic, social, and digital. The basic category covers the public works aspect of infrastructure projects: policy and material related to water, sewer, power, surface and air transportation. Social infrastructure includes the public safety, education, and healthcare aspects. Digital infrastructure is communications, structures, and equipment. The proposed plans, by the Biden administration and the numerous bills introduced in committee, would address each of these categories, with a climate thread found throughout. It seems as though we are in a moment of understanding, at the federal level, that these crises are intertwined, intersectional and that lawmaking at those intersections is what will catalyze a degree of transformation.
Infrastructure bills of the past have rarely integrated public engagement or comment into the policy design phase, largely due to the nature of the lawmaking - infrastructure policy is a behemoth. Public engagement and comment periods, when incorporated, are often in the late stages and act as a placeholder for democracy instead of a platform for encouraging and integrating civic voice into the design process. Public engagement, which can rightfully turn into public opposition, can be seen as costly, in resources and time. But for a policy arena that quite literally builds and sculpts the natural and social environment around all citizens, shouldn’t democracy be at the forefront? Doesn’t transformational change require a direction that is steadfastly upheld by those experiencing the shift?
We stand at a precipice regarding the next American infrastructure policy package. We have the chance to move a bill (multiple) through Congress that will address the myriad crises we are facing. And with a Civic Voice Platform (CVA), we could improve on the federal public engagement of the past in order to connect local needs to national funding and solutions. An active and established Civic Voice Platform can act as a tool on three fronts: as a data mediator, a democracy guarantor, and as a geographic leveler.
As a data mediator, a Civic Voice Platform can be designed for streamlined data collection, access, and use. In a future where a Civic Voice Platform is robustly established, policymakers can bypass the bureaucratic issues that occur when the federal government tries to do public comment and engagement: there’s too much data with no tools outside human power to sift through or make sense of it. With the Clean Power Plan, an Obama-era infrastructure-adjacent policy package, stakeholder engagement was front and center, including consultations with the utility power sector, state and city governments, labor leaders, environmental justice communities, public health experts and advocates, and the general public. They were battling the myriad obstacles to enacting a nationally-reaching bill related to clean energy and climate change and recognized that obtaining such a depth of understanding required the EPA to engage more intimately and for a long period with all levels of stakeholders. In regards to engaging the general public, Gina McCarthy, the then-administrator of the EPA, decided to conduct the public comment period before the proposal’s release in order to hear a wide variety of views to understand how various stakeholders viewed the challenge and what to anticipate in terms of support and opposition to various options. The EPA led an extensive public campaign to garner engagement on the issue, with public hearings in major cities, teleconferences, listening sessions, and webinars, ultimately receiving 4.3 million comments. The EPA had to employ hundreds of people to pore over the comments, analyze the data, concerns, and arguments for and against the plan.
While the EPA’s outreach on this legislation was admirable and something for the federal government to emulate in the future, processing data and public comment should be a mechanism that is established for all lawmaking, so that the data is useful and can be incorporated readily. Only with a specific task force and deliberation did this level of public comment incorporation occur on an issue that is national in scope; this level of deliberation and activation of human resources cannot be expected with other nationally scoped legislation.
If the Civic Voice Platform was employed for this type of endeavor, the platform itself could be a streamlining tool that would make it easy for policymakers to access the data repository themselves, filter out and search for the issues or geographic regions they are seeking input on.
It is a tool to be used alongside creative constituent engagement, a federated repository of hyper-local issues that houses civic memory and provides context that could be instrumental in changing how the government tackles massive amounts of civic data on policy behemoths, like infrastructure. Part of Biden’s plan includes the social aspects of infrastructure - a focus on workers and human capital. The CVA would demand new civic and socio-technical roles in district offices, which can be seen as human and digital infrastructure building. With a district-level data officer, the role would be similar to the roles created with the Clean Power Plan, but more streamlined and permanent, incorporating many sources of data relevant to the district.
This creative constituent engagement can be done by the federal, state, or local governments, and the CVA is built on the premise that information from relevant sources is uploaded. This allows the CVA to act as a geographic leveler, determining the issues that are relevant on a local level, a regional level, and a national level. Designed correctly, the platform can act as a tool that connects the local to the regional to the national. For example, a large component of the currently proposed LIFT America Act is brownfield revitalization in tandem with community solar initiatives. Community solar is an inherently localized issue with national outcomes, as it provides a source of localized energy but works toward larger national renewable energy and climate goals. Brownfields revitalization is local but can be a regional issue, depending on the site and effects on local waterways and soil, thus affecting agricultural outcomes. The input of civic voice is especially important within these cross-cutting issues, and understanding that civic voice within a platform will be essential in designing transformational infrastructure legislation and implementation.
As a local to federal connector, the Civic Voice Platform could have the ability to demonstrate links between issues, establishing the environment for working at the intersection of social and environmental geographies. The CVA could provide the space for communities to determine what is important to them locally and suggest creative solutions, but also nationally, as the American identity often transcends specific localities. There is the opportunity to make the planning and lawmaking process more democratic, addressing questions that lie at the core of infrastructure planning: who and what and how will this policy serve? What impacts will it have over time? An established CVA, as a civic memory device that connects the local to the federal, could provide lawmakers with early access to what priorities hold the most weight, could give ideas to which stakeholders could be a part of issue-based task forces that ideally, could save the federal government time and resources on a project-by-project basis. Not all infrastructure issues necessitate public engagement, and the CVA can also provide insight into that.
The Civic Voice Platform could undoubtedly bring an ease of use to the public comment and public engagement mechanism, but to take it a step further, it could incentivize engagement at the onset. An effective mechanism is more likely to be used and thus, encourages democratic participation and improves data usability in the public domain. If the CVA is established as a workable and protected public good, the process of community fact-finding and solution finding come together in a local way that ensures sustainability, all while still informing and achieving national gains.