The Next Form of Democracy: How Expert Rule Is Giving Way to Shared Governance — and Why Politics Will Never Be the Same by Matt Leighninger (Author)
I attended a lecture at Portland city hall, basically book tour for this book, Wed April 30th 6pm. It was great!
Matt is the executive director of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium and has been a consultant to the CDC, the Study Circles Resource Center, the National League of Cities. He also wrote: The Seven Deadly Citizens: Moving From Civic Stereotypes to Well-Rounded Citizenship The Good Society – Volume 13, Number 2, 2004, pp. 33-38
Matt started with the quote: “an expert = someone from out of town”. He started out working for a foundation on community engagement issues, began working across communities and sharing lessons across communities. He sees the same problems over and over again. One of those problems is the relationship between citizens and their government.
- Past to current: there’s a parent-child relationship (attitude?) between government and citizens
- Future: citizens want an adult-adult relationship
He sees that government representatives experience citizens as either absent or angry. Officials want to be respected & trusted, and citizens want to be heard. Citizens are also seeking social connection. Non-profits often work to fill the gap, but are many single-issue/focus groups competing for community involvement and attention, resulting in a very fragmented effort which is overwhelming to citizens. His phrase: we need “mixed-use public involvement” (like mixed-use land development). How he sees engagement happen now:
- Temporary projects – last 6-12 months, people get engaged and then disband.
- Permanant structures – neighborhood councils etc, but these can fail to provide true recruitment/engagement [enrollment is the word I’d use – SM]
Matt believes we need to combine the two.
He identifies 4 key principles for success:
- 1) recruitment [enrollment] – reach out and engage people where they are and through what they’re already involved in.
- 2) combine small-group (dialog, action planning, real work) with large-group (inspiration, amplification, reinforcement of collaboration) work.
- 3) build relationships: folks need time to compare values & experiences, and then need to consider a range of views & options for solutions to identified issues.
- 4) combine different levels of change – immediate volunteer participation, organizational change, policy change.
He then reviewed a few Mini Cases
problem: land use – people are looking for control over their surroundings, issues are contentious and difficult
solution: “neighbors building neighborhoods” in Rochester, NY.
NBN uses NeighborLink Online to let neighbors see benchmarks & current measurements, GRUB – greater rochester urban bounty is a urban farm project. Is it successful? rochester keeps losing tax base to neighboring areas and has had to cut funding so maybe not?
problem: race & segregation
solution: “Lee County Pulling Together”
Started from a church having community dialogues. Ended up identifying a need for more services in a low income neighborhood and getting a shopping center built. Key Lesson: sharing the responsibility of governance means sharing our differences.
problem: citizens becoming anti-vaccine and not trusting government
solution: “what to do about the flu?”
study circles of citizens examine vaccination challenges in pandemic situations and make recommendations to local government for emergency planning. gets people educated about the issues.
solution: “community chat” became “village foundation”
Neighbors coming together to talk about shared issues eventually began developing ways to meet those needs from within the neighborhood: neighborhood watch, got a neighborhood school established.
-We need to update legal frameworks, open meeting laws and advisory requirements have become barriers to meaningful commmunity involvement though their goals were open-ness and transparency. In the LA area in particular things have gotten problematic
-Engagement needs to combine the social and cultural with the political to be meaningful for people.
-Need to follow the 4 key principles
the goal: community engagement that is equitable, egalitarian, efficient, deliberate and decisive
There were a number of Q&As, most specific to Portland, but one answer he gave particularly caught my attention as matching a feeling I’ve had:
Q- youth engagement?
A – Sometimes youth projects have a flavor of passing the buck: “We can’t solve racism in our generation so let’s get the next generation to do it”. Cross-generational projects are great, but you’ve got to have youth leadership if you want to have youth engagement.
I also found this answer intriguing:
Q – what about government & race issues?
A – there’s an unintended legacy of the “I have a Dream” speech which is the idea that questions of difference can be resolved and there’s a promised land where we no longer have issues and we just all live happily together. The reality is that differences are always going to be there as both an opportunity and challenge; the role of government needs to be that of continually facilitating constructive engagement around differences and helping us move forward.
and these are all very sensible advice
Q – facilitation & meeting planning
A – definitely facilitation is a needed skill, people need training. the Rochester project has a training academy that trains citizens & civic servants together, so they build relationships as well as skills. Robert’s Rules are a pain, Robert can get lost. What matters: ground rules, safe space, experience & story sharing, ranges of options to choose from.
Q- how to engage the working class?
A – you need to reach out to them, be flexible on times & locations (church basements, hair salons). emphasize content that is meaningful and relevant, ensure their participation is genuine and not token, make sure they’re heard. Shorter meetings aren’t the answer, everyone is busy, it’s about making it worthwhile, so longer might be better.
Q – Donna Beagle, local expert on poverty, says to emphasize relational connections and avoid being place-based because populations are too mobile. how to deal?
A – Focus on what people belong to, what networks or groups. Have meeting structure but don’t be rigid – facilitate & follow what they want.
Q – meeting structure advice?
A – tie back again to “must include social & cultural with political”. Meet at local schools where people can see the kids school projects hung up, catch up with their neighbors and eat. Mix up the content, so have working monthly meetings but every 6 months its a big celebration with minor report-out, to have broader appeal. attach to a social event like the weekly football tailgate party – have 30 minutes of neighborhood meeting beforehand. Small group work, large group punctuation
Q – running government as a business
A – Runs government into the ground. simply can’t make everything into a fee-for-service. need to confer legitimacy on citizen participation. this is where open meeting laws get tricky, citizens don’t feel valued, but personal process isn’t super open & transparent. Challenge!
I definately recommend his book, there’s more there. He has an interesting chapter where he talks about Saul Alinsky and how classic community organizing focuses on building a power base outside of government and holding negotiations, very much a “government is them” approach as opposed to the participatory approach he believes we are capable of today, particularly supported by technology. It’s easy to dismiss that as unfair because of a “digital divide”, but I’ve seen interesting programs for serving the disadvantaged that used technology as infrastructure to support local human beings who provided the ultimate interface, and that struck me as a smart way to combine technology and touch.