California Forum

Millennials have key role in shaping capital’s future

Justin Knighten, a vice president of Lucas Public Affairs, helped launch the conversation series “What’s Possible” in partnership with Sacramento State University’s Hornets Policy and Politics Alumni group, California Forward and the League of California Cities.
Justin Knighten, a vice president of Lucas Public Affairs, helped launch the conversation series “What’s Possible” in partnership with Sacramento State University’s Hornets Policy and Politics Alumni group, California Forward and the League of California Cities. jvillegas@sacbee.com

Fourth in an occasional series.

The city of Sacramento can portray two dramatically different images: One a boring and staid government town, slow to embrace change as political parties do battle over state issues. The other is one of a trendsetter for groundbreaking ideas that generate policies with global impact and a rapidly evolving downtown that is attracting the next generation of innovators and political entrepreneurs.

Sacramento is one of the most diverse cities in the country, benefiting from homegrown talent as well as an influx from the Bay Area. And while many think of the Capitol as a stodgy town dominated by government agencies, many of us in the political and policy arena see the city as a dynamic place with great opportunities.

Some opportunities have been seized, others remain up for grabs. It is an exciting time, but there is much to do to develop millennials and better incorporate them into the Capitol community so they can influence state and local government. Millennials – who tend to be more collaborative and forward-thinking and seek to change the world – offer the prospect of taking California’s political accomplishments further and achieving more.

For those of us who work in the Capitol community, we see a robust and bustling city with a high concentration of people of influence working on the state’s biggest challenges – technology, education, climate and health care, to name a few. California’s leading business interests have a footprint here while many major statewide interest groups, think tanks and associations operate in the region.

Policies crafted here are often replicated and modeled by lawmakers outside our state and national borders. Regulations for automobile pollution adopted here decades ago have been implemented nationwide. Gov. Jerry Brown is in Paris this week to continue this work at the United Nations summit on climate change.

Many activists in other countries refer to laws by California’s Legislature as examples of what they aspire to achieve. We have illuminated a path for advancing equality and strengthening anti-discrimination laws.

For example, California K-12 schools are required to include LGBT history, and new policies aim to protect the rights of transgender people. I’ve had conversations with people from Atlanta, Hungary and Ireland who point to these policy wins and many others. California’s policies can offer hope in places where being gay is illegal and offenders face jail time or the death penalty.

The can-do, will-do attitude of California politics appeals to anyone committed to a cause and driving it forward. Our pragmatic approach and record for bipartisan leadership suggests that millennials would thrive in our policy environment. Many have established careers here and are making an impact, but obstacles remain in reaching and harnessing the full potential of this generation.

A June 2015 Pew Research Center report shows millennials are “less interested in politics than older generations,” but the reasons might be revealed in other data that highlights a general lack of trust and faith in the governmental process. More alarming is the voter turnout of younger millennials, ages 18-24, in the 2014 general election. The California Civic Engagement Project reported that out of the 3.5 million eligible young voters, only 285,000 actually voted.

Mindy Romero, founder and director of the engagement project, offers an explanation. “Young people care a lot about their world and their community. The Capitol can help connect them to real change; however, we need to be better at supporting efforts that will boost levels of civic engagement.”

Romero told me that “early action is key. High school graduates must know why engagement matters and how to navigate the voting system. We must also acknowledge and address the harmful bias of many regarding the degree to which young people get involved and have a voice.”

Education is a strong tool to provide a sense of civic duty and service. Initiatives are underway to provide students access to civic engagement opportunities and ensure civic learning is a top priority in schools. Yet, the bias concerning young people is a chronic issue for millennials and future generations.

How can we address this? There is no simple answer, but there are some examples to change this scenario.

First, to reach a hyperdigital generation, government must adapt accordingly and continue to evolve as new technologies and digital platforms surface.

“Technology has forever changed how we interact with government and access information, but IT staff haven’t always had a seat at the table to make important decisions, particularly within government,” Bill Maile, founder of the technology publication TechWire, told me in an interview. “There has been progress on this front over the last few years. It will be interesting to watch how programs change to fit the expectations of a changing workforce.”

Modern web portals, custom-made apps and other tech-based solutions could enhance government efficiency to better connect with and serve all Californians. The Little Hoover Commission even argues in a new report that leveraging technology is essential in creating a “Customer-Centric” system to improve state government. The report suggests that “better meeting Californians’ expectations” can also increase “trust and confidence in government.”

Workshops and forums that explore radical policy concepts can help state and local leaders find new ways to solve problems. This is helpful for young leaders who have good ideas, but may lack the reach to fully develop or execute them.

This is why I helped launch the conversation series “What’s Possible” in partnership with Sacramento State University’s Hornets Policy and Politics Alumni group, California Forward and the League of California Cities. One topic explored how evolving digital platforms can help local government facilitate civic engagement. Another convened national experts on fiscal management in the public sector.

Perhaps moving forward we will see new types of forums emerge. For instance, more policy-centered hackathons could bring together a mix of people with various backgrounds and expertise to tackle big issues and help inspire innovative thinking.

Mentorship is critical. Uniting young leaders with seasoned political minds and policy experts give a younger workforce access to a support system, much-needed critique and a strong professional network. This is increasingly important as our aging workforce is set to retire, leaving a void of talent that must be filled.

All of this, and more, is possible. While these changes will help reach and appeal to young people, they, too, have responsibility to step-up and do their part to engage, get more involved politically and begin to recognize the capital city as a seat of power and catalyst for change.

Justin Knighten is a vice president of Lucas Public Affairs.

Justin Knighten

  • Knighten works in public affairs with expertise in media relations, issue management campaigns and social media strategy.
  • While earning a degree from California State University, Sacramento, Knighten spent a few years working for the California Environmental Protection Agency.
  • In 2008, he joined Lucas Public Affairs to help expand the strategic communications firm. He now serves as part of the senior leadership team.
  • He is the media and public affairs director for the Harvey Milk Foundation, a global nonprofit that promotes the gay-rights activist’s legacy through human rights education and global outreach.

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