Swann Memorial Fountain in front of Philadelphia City Hall (Mark Henninger/Imagic Digital)

Just two years after our first woman vice president took office, Cherelle Parker is the Democratic nominee to be Philadelphia’s first woman mayor, Joanna McClinton is the first woman speaker of the Pennsylvania House, and Kim Ward is the first woman president pro tem of the state Senate, and we have the first women to be Allegheny County Executive and the Chief Justice of the Pa. Supreme Court. I could not be more honored or humbled to have just been named the first woman to lead the Committee of Seventy in its nearly 120-year history. 

Our leadership and our government are changing — they’re starting to look more like all of us, the people they represent.

We have an opportunity and a responsibility to bring people closer to their government. 

Whether it’s the collapse of a stretch of I-95 or the inundation of unhealthy air from Canadian wildfires, recent crises have reminded us just how much we need that closeness to understand the impacts of the changing world around us. At times like these, people yearn for information, and it’s the responsibility of government to communicate clearly and transparently — for everyone’s safety and peace of mind.

How can people hold government accountable to that responsibility? Yes, voting is a necessary step. In the largest city in the largest swing state, we are regularly inundated with people telling us: “This is the most important election of your lifetime.” 

That’s true. Every election is tremendously important. We want every eligible voter to vote, to be informed when they vote, and to vote with confidence.

But while voting is necessary, it is not sufficient. Not even close. 

We need to encourage people to get more active and engaged with local politics. Without this engagement, we are breeding the voter apathy we’ve seen in our city’s dwindling share of voter turnout. Even as turnout has increased statewide, we’ve seen it decrease in Philadelphia over the last few elections. 

The key is not just encouraging people to vote, but helping them become poll workers or block captains, connect with their elected officials, and talk to their neighbors about democracy. 

Democracy works better when we earn and hold trust: trust in local election officials, in the integrity of our systems, and in each other. The best way to build trust is to get involved and become a part of the democratic process, and to work toward a government that is as transparent and effective as possible. 

Just look at the impact the Shapiro administration had by setting up a livestream of the I-95 rebuilding. With this simple act of transparency, Philadelphians were so ecstatic that it became an instant meme

At the most basic level, the gap between residents and their government remains vast. A recent Lenfest poll showed that 45% of Philadelphians don’t know who their councilperson is. If you don’t know who your representatives are, you’ve likely never asked them to provide the help your neighborhood needs, or the services you and your family deserve.

Government has little incentive to improve if they don’t think the public is watching. The Committee of Seventy has watched for nearly 120 years, and we’ll continue to do so — but we must also empower others to watch, learn, get engaged, and hold government accountable. 

In every corner of the city and in every county of the commonwealth, people should expect more of their elected officials, and they should understand what tools and leverage they gain when they vote.  

The Committee of Seventy can and will continue to call out corruption and mismanagement. But if properly equipped, groups of citizens can have an enormous impact. Some examples: 

  • Neighborhoods groups that organize for resources in the budget to confront the challenges they face
  • Business leaders who provide resources for their employees to vote and get engaged (as Seventy does through our WeVote program)
  • Schools that provide a robust education in civics from kindergarten through college (which Seventy is proud to support)

When voters understand their power, grasp how the system works, and demand better government, we’ll see a true civics revolution — one in which all Pennsylvanians are engaged, invested, and ultimately in control of their destiny.

Lauren Cristella is president and CEO of the Committee of Seventy, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that has promoted, supported, and facilitated government ethics and election integrity for over a...