GAGNE: Effective representation is necessary for student-self governance

Communication, accessibility and accountability are all essential components of student government

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Sarah Kenny, a fourth-year College student and Student Council president, at a Representative Body meeting. 

Christina Anton | Cavalier Daily

The key to any democratic system of government remains constant no matter what size, shape or form that system may take. The success of a democracy rests on its representative nature. The actions of a governing body, even one as hyper-local as Student Council, must accurately reflect the interests of the people it represents. To establish this, a representative must foster communication with their constituents, and for this communication to occur, a representative must be accessible. Without this accessibility, there will be no way for citizens to express their concerns. However, these points are moot unless a representative can be held accountable, as communication holds no weight unless consequences exist. Therefore, communication, accessibility and accountability are necessary for effective representation, otherwise the representative body will degrade into an apathetic structure that fails to reflect student interest.

An effective representative must maintain a level of communication with their community. The purpose of a representative is to serve in the best interest of their constituency, and without regular levels of communication, this interest is lost. An isolated representative will grow out of touch with the constantly evolving public. Consistent communication not only prevents apathy but fosters allyship with a community. Representatives who do not talk to their constituents may attempt to seize a cause for themselves. Instead of filling a supporting role, the Council may attempt to turn itself into the figurehead of the movement. This is not the role of government. The Council must ally with the needs and wants of minority organizations, signing on to their needs rather than prescribing a solution. An example of the effective execution of the allyship role is the endorsement of the BSA demands. The Council signed onto the demands of a coalition of minority organizations instead of attempting to craft their own list. Furthermore, it never became “Student Council’s Demands,” as the organization ensured the authors of the demands remained the chief heralds of the movement.

Quality representation also means maintaining accessibility. The ability to engage in communication is worthless if no opportunities for dialogue exist. One manner by which a representative fosters accessibility is by providing opportunities for student participation in student government. In recent times, the Council has established many ad-hoc committees and focus groups designed to target specific issues at the University. By enabling student participation, representatives make a more in-tune council. At the same time, however, the dependence on student participation exacerbates the greatest issues with accessibility. The greatest flaw of the Council is that the only students with influence are those who have the time and resources to participate in student government. However, this is not an inherent quality of the system and is possible to change. The recent establishment of office hours represent important steps taken to remedy this weakness of the system. Representatives can solve the problems with accessibility through policies and by becoming the ones to initiate the conversation with those who are marginalized. By doing so, they expand the horizon of student government and enhance its representative nature.

The arguments outlined above rely on representatives taking initiative. For this to occur, there must be an accountability mechanism inherent in student government. The essence of accountability consists of knowledgeable constituents and internal regulation. Internal regulation may take the form of the basic attendance requirements enshrined in Student Council bylaws that ensure representatives at least show up. Meanwhile, constituents keep their representatives accountable by keeping tabs on representatives through news coverage and public voting records. While these accountability systems exist, they are inadequate in their current form. Attempts to inform the public hinge on the external newsletter, a University-wide email that can easily be ignored or missed. The attendance requirements mentioned previously only require general body meeting attendance, so a representative could do nothing else and face no consequences. Greater steps must be taken to inform the student body and ensure representatives do more than simply show up Tuesday nights. What it means to be a true, quality representative is to expand accountability even if it means increasing the strictness of a system by which one must abide. Good representation acts against one’s potential apathy by establishing systems that will force accessibility and communication through accountability. 

Communication between representatives and the student body maintains an effective pursuit of student interest. This communication must be built upon the accessibility of the institution, as communication cannot occur if one cannot interact with their representative. While the Council encourages accessibility through student participation, this makes it difficult for those that cannot participate to have a voice. Yet both communication and accessibility depend on representatives taking initiative in their offices. Therefore, accountability measures designed to craft an informed student body and active representatives must exist. However, current incarnations of accountability systems desperately need to be reformed. Accountability measures are important in order to ensure communication and accessibility. All three of these points are what make the Council a reflection of student interest, and they must be prioritized to preserve student self-governance.

Avery Gagne is a first-year College student and a Student Council representative.

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