Public Agenda
Commentary

Revitalizing Democracy, Community by Community

Will Friedman, Ph.D.

Reprinted from The Huffington Post - June 27, 2013

At the level of national politics, the American democracy is in clear crisis. Rampant gridlock and partisan bickering undermine progress and earn the mistrust and frustration of the populace. Fortunately, a better story is unfolding in many local settings, where public officials and community-based leaders can make a real difference in addressing important issues like public safety, education reform and job creation.

One of the keys to solving local public problems well is the democratic art of public engagement: creating the means for residents to have a meaningful voice and role in addressing public issues.

A recent study from my organization on public engagement in California shows that both local public officials and leaders of community-based organizations are looking for new and better ways to engage their communities, because the old ones just aren't cutting it.

These older approaches, they say, too often lead to gripe sessions, are dominated by people with narrow agendas, and frequently omit large sections of the citizenry, including young people, low-income populations and immigrants. Such problems, of course, are by no means confined to California.

What's worrisome on the one hand and hopeful on the other is a cycle that I've seen throughout my career in this field: bad engagement begets bad engagement and good engagement begets good engagement.

Poorly designed public consultations -- public hearings and the like -- lower the expectations of both leaders and citizens. Public meetings that are done for formality's sake only, or worst of all that are rigged, are of course that much worse.

Even well-intentioned leaders who truly wish to partner with the public can become dejected by the vicious circle of bad engagement. As one superintendent I worked with put it, "I've experienced a lot more public enragement than engagement in my time."

Citizens, for their part, grow cynical and angry and learn nothing from poorly designed, empty-gesture or cynically rigged public participation exercises. As a consequence, the spiral of mistrust, gridlock and political dysfunction deepens.

Fortunately, many public officials and civic leaders throughout California are experimenting with more thoughtful, well-designed and inclusive forms of public engagement. Just over half of local public officials (53 percent) say they have participated in an inclusive and deliberative type of public meeting in the past year, and 43 percent of civic leaders say the same.

More and more examples of well-designed public engagement exist. One of my favorites is Participatory Budgeting, which started in Brazil and has spread to U.S. cities including New York, Chicago and Vallejo, CA. In Participatory Budgeting, residents identify community problems, develop proposals to utilize public money that is set aside for community projects, vet them with municipal agencies, present them to their community, and vote on which projects should receive funding. This voting process actually determines what happens.

Many other examples of sound, local civic engagement can be found in the writings of Matt Leighninger and at the websites of the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation, the National League of Cities, and the Center for Advances in Public Engagement at my own organization, Public Agenda.

Just as bad engagement begets bad engagement, good engagement begets good. Sound and creative practices raise expectations and build communication and trust between the public and public officials. They generate the kind of public support and public-private civic partnerships that get parks cleaned up, bridges repaired, children educated and communities strengthened.

Through well-designed engagement, public officials come to understand that citizens can play a constructive role in shaping the policies that affect their community. Some of the most satisfying moments of my career have involved watching public officials experience their first truly well-designed and deliberative round of community dialogue. They're amazed at how thoughtful and constructive people can be, given a little information, a few tools and a modicum of the right support.

The public officials and civic leaders in California and elsewhere who are embracing an ethic of civic participation and developing smart practices for fostering it are generating democratic hope. They open up possibilities for those of us who believe that our democracy can do much better.

In the words of one elderly resident following a Brooklyn community conversation with African-American, orthodox Jewish and other community members, "we should have done this years ago."

Follow Will Friedman, Ph.D on Twitter: @wkfriedman