Emerging Issues: Are we Ready for Government by the People?

October 12, 2010

by Bill Barnes

Many city officials feel they and their community have been hurt by well-intended participatory processes gone badly awry. Once burned, twice shy. You can imagine that citizens feel the same way.

It is, however, not unusual that residents and city halls first meet each other in special deliberative sessions when there is a particularly troublesome issue that severely divides the local polity. Like the current budget crises. Strong emotions, forceful words and bad feelings frequently follow.

Taking a longer view, Matt Leighninger, executive director of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium and long-time NLC collaborator, observes that the foundation for dealing with really wicked issues must be laid way before an issue escalates. And, he adds wryly, why not build that foundation by doing excellent citizen involvement when the topic is more positive and less divisive - planning a park or envisioning a strategy for green jobs?

New NLC Report

A new NLC report, "Making Local Democracy Work," adds information about the views of municipal officials to the on-going discourse about democracy. The government side of the citizen/government relationship is too often neglected, to the detriment of the whole discussion.

The NLC study surveyed elected and managerial municipal officials about public engagement. It defined public engagement as "proactive efforts to involve people in deliberating public issues and in helping to solve problems." (See related story about the survey report in the October 4 issue ofNation's Cities Weekly.)

Heavy Burdens

Heavy burdens have accumulated around the topic of government/citizen relationships. For example, a quick count of portentous vocabulary in a publication from a major democracy organization yields 13 weighty terms like democracy, community and self-government on just the first page. It's enough to weigh a person down.

City officials agree that great things are at stake. The NLC survey asked about the rewards and benefits that they think accrue from effective public engagement. Two items were selected most frequently as being "most important": "build a stronger sense of community" and "build trust between citizens and government."

Leighninger clearly believes that all these big issues are at stake, but he is pragmatic about how to proceed. He urges that we see all this as part of a "transition" to "The Next Form of Democracy," the title of his excellent 2006 book. The book's subtitle tells us his thesis about what this "transition" is - "How Expert Rule is Giving Way to Shared Governance...and Why Politics Will Never Be the Same."

That "expert rule" bit will present difficulties for city officials because it turns out that they are the ones who are often perceived as the overbearing experts. And "shared governance" may sound fine until officials' preference for making sure everyone has the right information (a preference that is strongly expressed in responses to the NLC survey) confronts people's inclination to just speak their minds and hearts or a neighborhood's desire to take over decision-making about a proposed facility. How can those tensions be managed constructively?

There's no easy way out of this. We know that the relationship 'twixt government and citizens is changing, Leighninger says, but we don't know where we are in this journey. So we should do what we can to improve that relationship and keep searching for what works the way it should.

The Road Ahead

So, what to do? There are lots of oracles who have "shoulds" and "oughts" to offer. Not much help there.

Happily, there are also lots of "how to" materials and resource people who have experience and techniques to offer. Mostly helpful. NLC's recent guidebook on "Civic Engagement and Recent Immigrant Communities" is a good example.

Mainly, officials and citizens continue to learn, to experiment, and to take interesting ideas from elsewhere because they are seeking ways to make local situations better. That is the key driver of all this change: people who care about their community are looking for ways to solve problems and seize opportunities; and the shared power of the citizen/government relationship is crucial to their ability to do that.

Public engagement is not a separate thing; it is not a one-time event. It is ways of thinking and ways of doing the governance you need to do to make your community better. Big successes will likely be outnumbered by "sort of okay's" and even duds, so a commitment to keeping learning and keep trying will be crucial.

An appreciation of the purposes to be served and the historic transition we are muddling through may thus be more helpful to local officials who are trying to decide what to do than knowing the next new thing or carrying out the latest "engagement" methods or using the glitziest technology.

Details: "Making Local Democracy Work: Municipal Officials' Views About Public Engagement" by William Barnes and Bonnie Mann, an NLC Research Report, is available on the NLC website,www.nlc.org, on the "Governance" topic page. The "Recent Immigrant" guidebook is on the same page.

Bill Barnes is the director for emerging issues at NLC. Comments about his column, which appears regularly in Nation's Cities Weekly, and ideas about "emerging issue" topics can be sent to him atbarnes@nlc.org. To read previous columns, visit the Emerging Issues webpage at www.nlc.org (in the menu for "About Cities").