The New Orleans Coalition on Open Governance is bringing together a disparate array of organizations that see the power and potential of helping people take a more active role in the decisions that impact their communities.
Education, criminal justice, housing, economic development – there are some big issues on the table around New Orleans. Their answers are not always clear-cut, and their sheer number and complexity can sometimes feel overwhelming. But to one way to thinking, there is something fundamental that ties them together and that might also hold the key to progress across many different fronts.
“I think there are lots of issues we need to address in the greater New Orleans area, and there’s one issue that sort of threads through all of them, and that is that we have to increase our civic engagement in decision-making,” says Linda Usdin, coordinator of the New Orleans Coalition on Open Governance (NOCOG).
NOCOG was formed in 2009 to do just that. As a coalition, this nonprofit includes a seemingly disparate array of eight local nonprofits, ranging from the Public Affairs Research Council, a well-established, statewide legislative watchdog, to Puentes and VAYLA (or the Vietnamese American Young Leaders Association), two New Orleans advocacy groups for the Latino and Vietnamese communities respectively. They all share a belief that making government more open and accessible, and creating opportunities for people to get involved, helps advance the issues closer to their own distinct missions.
For instance, as debate swirled about the size and scope of a new prison in New Orleans, coalition member the Lens, a nonprofit investigative journalism outlet, discovered that only four of 11 local law enforcement groups were in compliance with laws requiring public input in their policy-setting processes. Other coalition members rallied their constituencies, and filled City Council chambers during budget hearings to make public input on the future of the city’s criminal justice apparatus an issue for their local elected officials.
“That was an example of how all the groups around the table worked together, whereas one organization might not have been as effective,” says Usdin. “And that’s sort of how we approach everything. We look at a strategy, and then we look at what possible roles our different organizations can play in promoting openness and accountability.”
This sort of civic engagement is a basic tenet of American democracy, but NOCOG believes that some capacity development is often needed to fully exercise it. That’s why the group offers training programs to help the public understand the policy-making process, how to access information and where the buck stops inside government structures.
“So you know there’s a rather intricate, often puzzling system of governance that we have not been engaged with a lot in Louisiana,” Usdin says. “We’re hoping that through the positive changes that have happened after Katrina, where people did get engaged and they did make a difference, that we can build on that and create a much more engaged citizenry and then we will have much more accountable governance.”
From creating a corruption-fighting inspector general’s office in New Orleans to consolidating the region’s levee boards, Usdin sees many signs of progress made possible because the public was informed and involved.
“We’re taking a lot of little steps and taking a lot of little stones to build a more engaged community and we’ve seen that when a community is engaged we have better government,” she says.
Learn more about the New Orleans Coalition on Open Governance at www.nocog.org