In 1997, Harry and Caroline Pozycki, having just spent 10 years in the political and governmental world in a wide variety of roles, saw the signs of an accelerating decline in our State’s civic vitality. As big money, particularly in the form of “pay to play” cash and political careerism grew, citizens began to feel powerless and started to withdraw from the civic arena. Harry and Caroline decided to use the knowledge they gained from their pro bono work with US Senator Bill Bradley and Governor Tom Kean and the connections they made with many civic minded law and policy experts to found The Citizens Campaign. Derek Bok, former President of Harvard University, soon joined its board and with him came more volunteers; together they took up the task of finding ways to engage and empower citizens to participate and contribute without dependence on the political establishment.
Over the next 15 years, the community of civic-minded leaders which comprised The Citizens Campaign built laws and developed training tools and curriculum to give regular citizens the power to get results on the issues they cared about. Empowerment laws developed and passed by The Citizens Campaign such as the Open Public Records Act, which gave citizens unprecedented access to government information; the Citizen Service Act which opened to all citizens the closed shop of government opportunities; and the Party Democracy Act which gave grassroots political party representatives the power to control major party decisions, laid a foundation for citizen power.
Next, The Campaign developed training classes for a variety of power roles which citizens could use to find and advance evidence-based solutions to problems that were hurting our communities and our State. The first to have impact was the role of Citizen Legislator where large numbers of citizens across the state brought a model law called pay-to-play reform to the town and city councils gaining adoption in over 100 towns and leveraging passage at the State level of their reform, now broadly recognized as the strongest in the nation.
Soon, assisted by The Citizens Campaign’s legal experts, citizens developed a way to save big dollars on city insurance contracts. Reducing the cost of insurance by several million dollars a year in city after city, the law gained recognition from the State Comptroller for its ability to save over $200,000,000 a year for all of New Jersey’s local governments.
More and more model laws encompassing evidence-based solutions were forged by citizens with the help of The Citizens Campaign’s legal experts, but a new challenge to our civic health – the decline of media coverage of government, especially at the local level, gave rise to another power role – the Citizen Journalist. The Campaign developed trainings for hundreds of citizens who were taught how to cover their communities with a no-blame solution oriented focus. The Citizens Campaign also worked to advance the use of electronic media for local government reporting by training citizen journalists. One such venture produced the Paterson Press which was awarded first place as the best hyperlocal hard news outlet in New Jersey by the Society of Professional Journalists for the last two years.
As more citizens came forward, The Citizens Campaign held Call to Service forums in counties and cities throughout the State. In a single forum held in New Brunswick, over 1,300 citizens braved a torrential downpour to learn how to become citizen leaders.
Recognizing that the majority of citizen leadership efforts were occurring in our cities- for example, citizens in Newark passed a series of the Campaign’s model laws which led the New York Times to call it the most sweeping reform of any American city- The Citizens Campaign decided that citizen leadership could become sustainable if it fostered communities of citizen leaders in New Jersey’s challenged cities.
Collaborations were forged with City mayors such as Mayor Dana Redd in Camden, Mayor Wilda Diaz in Perth Amboy and most recently, with Mayor Fulop of Jersey City. This Impact Our Cities initiative is already showing results: a new ethics commission in Trenton is battling the City’s corruption problems and a new “leadership civics” curriculum developed by The Citizens Campaign in partnership with the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education was recently approved by the Trenton School District Superintendent.
In Perth Amboy, citizens created a Green Team that is focusing on storm resiliency. Perhaps, most promising is a city initiative to create a community based Student Code of Conduct which best practice examples have shown to dramatically improve graduation rates. More city solutions are developing every day as the Campaign’s Impact Our Cities initiative expands into Newark and Jersey City.
The reason that solutions offered by the Campaign’s trained citizen leaders are gaining adoption is that they are developed and proposed in keeping with four principles: first, they must benefit the entire community; second, they must be evidence based; third, they must be advanced using a no blame approach and fourth, they must be cost effective. This allows our citizen leaders to avoid the blame game and overcome the budget constraints that restrict many initiatives.
The Citizens Campaign’s many successes and its principled approach to empowering citizens has caught the eye of several national players in the world of civic engagement and technology. Recently the Campaign was invited to a nationwide meeting of such civic leaders and offered much encouragement to expand our offer of citizen power to a broader audience with their help. The group remarked especially on the power roles and principles that have proven successful in attracting disenchanted citizens back into the arena of constructive governance. The Citizens Campaign’s Board of Trustees recently created a Task Force to explore development of a digital platform to offer its tools and training to a broader audience.
The Citizens Campaign and the thousands of graduates from our leadership classes are rising as a new force of citizen problem-solvers poised to be the alternative to our increasingly dysfunctional democracy.