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Retooling Democracy (re-posted from John Kamensky’s blog)    

With the blessing of both the author and the blog owner, I am re-posting this excellent piece by my friend Matt Leighninger, director of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium. This was originally posted on July 30th, 2009 on The Presidential Transition, a worth-knowing-about blog run by John Kamensky of the IBM Center for the Business of Government. Matt’s post provides an overview of the state of play (and somewhat of a list of must-read materials) in the field of deliberative democracy.

The Obama Administration will soon release the Open Government Directive (OGD), the president’s plan for making the federal government more responsive, participatory, and effective. The directive will be the first significant federal attempt in decades to answer a very interesting question: How should we improve American democracy?

The OGD should be an important step forward, but this is not a challenge the administration can meet by itself (a fact that federal officials, following the style of their boss, are happy to acknowledge: they need and expect our help).  Luckily, there are a number of documents, from academic studies on governance to how-to civic engagement guides, which provide essential, practical advice on this question: they are must-reads for any democracy reformer.

Learning from the Locals.  One reason we have so much information is that this question of how to improve democracy is already a hot topic at the local level. For the last fifteen years, local leaders have been dealing with a dramatic shift in citizen attitudes and capacities. This transformation has caused new tensions between residents and elected officials, produced new public actors and problem-solvers, and inspired a new generation of civic experiments. The limitations of the traditional, ‘child-parent’ relationship between citizens and government are becoming more obvious, and we are struggling to establish more productive ‘adult-adult’ forms of governance. (For a brief, humorous video describing this transition, click here).

We are learning a great deal from this work. Academics, civic activists, public engagement practitioners, community organizers, public officials, and others have learned and written about the various attempts – successful and unsuccessful – to help citizens and government work together more effectively.

Lessons from a Recent Conference. A recent conference held at the University of New Hampshire provided one venue for this community to collect and synthesize these lessons and recommendations. Here are a few of their ideas:

  • “Change the public hearing model so that citizens engage with regulating officials in non-confrontational settings.”
  • “Hold conversation where the public can provide feedback on each other’s ideas (not just with federal agencies).”
  • “Reframe the laws on citizen participation to support public deliberation.”
  • “When engaging in national discussions, add in a set of questions about the actions people can take at the local level.”
  • “Empower federal agencies to organize, convene, facilitate, or fund dialogues, deliberations, meetings, or forums that take place face-to-face or online among groups of people in order to share experiences, learn about issues, explore benefits and drawbacks of policies or plans, make recommendations, or develop plans or decisions in order to guide the decisions or plans of agencies or guide the decisions or plans of nongovernmental individuals or organizations.”
  • “Expand the ‘Sister Cities’ concept so that it is more than just a cultural exchange: so that it allows delegations to learn from each other about democratic and participatory practices in local governance.”

(This is just a small sample; more of the conclusions from this conference will soon be available here).

In most cases, the ideas from the conference are merely the headlines for much more detailed recommendations, many of them informed by on-the-ground civic experiments at the community level. The National League of Cities, the International City/County Management Association, and Philanthopy for Active Civic Engagement] have described this work in reports like Changing the Way We Govern and The New Laboratories of Democracy.

What Have Federal Agencies Learned? Federal agencies have already learned a great deal from these local efforts, and leading agencies like the EPA and CDC have incorporated some of these strategies into their work. Investing in Democracy provides a comprehensive overview and proposals. This report and this one supply the recommendations of, and for, pioneering federal managers. “Deliberative Democracy and the Problem of Scope” lays out the larger challenges and opportunities inherent in ‘scaling up’ local democratic successes to the state and federal levels.

Some of the best examples of engaging citizens more productively are efforts that: recruit large, diverse numbers of people; involve them in small-group discussions on an important issue; allow them to compare experiences and consider a range of views or policy options; support them as they plan for action. Resources like “Democracy, Growing Up,” Where Is Democracy Headed?, Funding and Fostering Local Democracy, and Democracy as Problem Solving? describe how these shared strategies evolved, spurred by changing citizen attitudes and capacities. The core principles underpinning these projects are described here.

Many of these efforts use online tools and technologies as a way to complement face-to-face meetings. Others are purely online experiments: “Promising Practices in Online Engagement” categorizes these different kinds of projects and offers practical suggestions for conducting them. Some of the most exciting and sustained projects are online neighborhood forums like the ones described in “Sidewalks for Democracy Online.”

Next Step:  Embedding Practices Into the Way Government Works
.  Though many of these examples show how democracy can work more effectively and equitably on a temporary basis – on a single issue for a short period of time – there are fewer instances where the new strategies have been ‘embedded’ into the way that governments and communities function. Empowered Participation describes several communities where this has happened, and identifies some key ingredients for success. Understanding neighborhood governance is an essential part of this question – see The Promise and Challenge of Neighborhood Democracy. And this draft article details the legal side of the challenge.

We shouldn’t neglect the democracy lessons being learned in other parts of the world, particularly in the Global South. “Reversing the Flow” makes this argument eloquently, and a number of studies – including this one and this one – summarize some of the work being done to revitalize governance and strengthen democratic accountability in other parts of the world. The British organization Involve has also produced many excellent reports on the attempts to reform democracy in the U.K.

This work has introduced new twists on timeless questions about power, justice, and equity. Do these forms of engagement provide powerful new opportunities for people who have traditionally been excluded and disadvantages, or can they actually exacerbate long-standing divides and inequities? “Deliberative Democracy and the Problem of Power” recaps this conversation so far, and lays out new directions for aligning democracy, equity, and justice.

Of course, engaging citizens in more active ways is only one avenue for improving democracy, as this article points out. The more traditional citizen roles, like voting, deserve reconsideration in the light of 21st conditions. The “Strengthening Our Nation’s Democracy” platform pieces together the elements of a broader democracy agenda.

This is only the tip of the iceberg. There are many other areas – including youth engagement and the role of higher ed – that have a direct bearing on democracy reform. It is a lot to read! But then, “How should we improve democracy?” is a question that deserves the most well-informed answers we can give.

- Matt Leighninger

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