When you look at how things are going in Congress lately, do you ever wonder: What if we brought together a group of ordinary Americans, gave them the basic facts on an issue, and asked them to try to solve some of the problems Congress keeps kicking down the road?

Wouldn’t it be great if the common sense of the American people had more impact on government, James Madison wrote, “. . . it is the reason alone, of the public, that ought to control and regulate the government.” Isn’t that what the Founders had in mind, that government should be guided by “the sense of the people”?

It turns out, many of us have been asking those kinds of questions, and now an organization — Voice Of the People — is launching a bold new initiative to bring the Founders’ vision for a truly representative democracy to life, starting right here in Virginia. It’s called the Citizen Cabinet, and it is being developed in partnership with the University of Virginia.

Here’s how it will work: In the next few weeks, hundreds of Virginians will be getting letters from the Center for Survey Research, inviting them to be part of the Citizen Cabinet. About every three or four weeks, members of the Cabinet — who are scientifically selected to be a representative sample — will be given a briefing on a key issue. All the information presented is reviewed and agreed upon in advance by leading experts from both major parties and outside experts from a wide range of viewpoints.

Cabinet members are then presented the various policy options Congress is considering, and evaluate the arguments for and against each option. Finally they make their recommendations on what Congress should do. The recommendations are then delivered directly to Virginia’s members of Congress, and released to the media and the public, all in a fully transparent online process.

These same methods have been applied at the national level and the results are encouraging. Most Americans, it turns out, can come together across party lines and find common ground on the issues — when they’re given the basic facts and a chance to think things through. Even on highly complex issues, bipartisan majorities can agree on practical steps that would address the problem. The results from these national samples, and the interactive instruments they used, are posted at www.VOP.org if you’d like to try them yourself.

Thomas Jefferson wrote that he had “great confidence in the common sense of mankind.” And research has shown that citizens are often better at finding common ground than Congress.

Virginians will soon have a chance to see if Jefferson’s confidence is justified. Your household may already have been selected to participate in the Citizen Cabinet. Look for your invitation in the mail. If not, you can also go online and try these new methods for yourself, to learn about the issues and help you engage more effectively with your members of Congress.

Either way, tapping the common sense of the people may be the best idea yet to help break the gridlock in Congress.

–Richard Parsons, executive director


This op-ed originally appreared in the Roanoke Times on November 15, 2014

Photo by Michael Allen Smith via flickr