community government in Washington

I?m still at meetings of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium, but we?ve now been joined by a diverse group of activists from developing countries (members of the LogoLink network). We?ve gone on a ?field trip? to the Southeast quadrant of my own city, Washington, DC. We?re sitting in a cheerful, well-equipped, modern building in a diverse but basically very poor district. In the city?s Seventh Ward, there?s a low median income, high crime, and a disproportionate number of children and senior citizens, although there is also a high rate (40%) of home-ownership.

We are observing a public meeting of officials representing nineteen municipal departments. Their job is to develop comprehensive solutions to ?persistent problem areas,? such as outdoor drug markets at specific locations. A solution might involve the police (who would make arrests), the department of Public Works (which would tow away abandoned cars), housing agencies (which would build infill housing in abandoned lots), the Fire Marshal (who would fine landlords), the park service (which would cut down overgrowth), and others. Each neighborhood in the city has a similar team to coordinate municipal departments and to encourage citizen population.

The work that we are witnessing today is nested within an ambitious and impressive process for public participation. The City of Washington now convenes regular Citizen Summits at which thousands of residents deliberate about the Mayor?s proposed budget and strategic plan. Demographically representative samples of the city?s population meet for a day in the city?s huge Convention Center and use electronic technology to pool their ideas (a process developed by America Speaks). This discussion has a substantial impact on Washington?s priorities. Specifically, it has caused some redistribution of funds and priorities. As they deliberate, people from wealthy districts realize that the needs are greater in the city?s poor areas, and they come to support redistribution.

The Mayor then develops a contract with each city agency to implement the strategic plan. Performance can be monitored easily online, because agencies commit to tangible targets: e.g., ?put 200 more officers on the street.? Finally, a team is convened in each neighborhood to develop a strategic plan for their more local area. City departments send representatives who are experts on the particular neighborhood and empowered to make decisions on their departments? behalf. We are witnessing a weekly meeting of one such team.

This meeting is interesting to me because I was recently at a libertarian conference at which government was described as inefficient, corrupt, and unresponsive. There were calls for radical decentralization. The main approach that we discussed was to allow private individuals to band together into voluntary groups and purchase services on the market (i.e., privatization). Libertarians argue that they are not anti-political or anti-democratic; in fact, they want more intense and meaningful public participation, and they believe that voluntary associations are most hospitable to democracy. They blame central planners and other government experts for squelching public participation, localism, and pluralism.

Today I am witnessing decentralization and participation within the public sector, as ordered by a big-city mayor. I don?t have enough information to be able to say which approach works better, but I would recommend a certain amount of openness and pragmatism. There may not be a fundamental difference between libertarian and left-liberal approaches to participation. We happen to be meeting in the offices of a Community Development Corporation (a private nonprofit), which operates with government funding but is thinking of selling its services for fees. It has convened city employees to discuss how to coordinate their powers to make arrests, condemn buildings, and otherwise act as Leviathan.

In short, this is a public-private hybrid, in the great American tradition. Strong democrats might see it as an example of creeping privatization and the imperialistic market; libertarians might see the heavy hand of the government and the taxman. I think we?re witnessing participation, accountability, and pluralism.

Some observations about the meeting itself:

  • A lot of the work amounts to community policing: sharing intelligence about buildings and alleys that have created public safety problems.
  • There are no ordinary residents present as observers, although citizens have phoned in with complaints that are carefully considered. The room is set up to accommodate citizen observers.
  • The team is almost exclusively African American, as is the population of the neighborhood. Several members say that they were born in the ward, which is also typical of the very stable population of Southeast DC. On the other hand, they are much older and much more educated than the median of the ward. Almost all hold credentialed, professional positions in the government. I suspect that they could easily leave the neighborhood and the city if they wanted to. They seem proud of their work, energetic, and eager to share experiences with our group.
  • Although team members work for the government, the meeting looks and feels like a neighborhood association event. People volunteer to do things, either as part of their jobs or pro bono.
  • They are making evident progress on the specific issues that they address. The ward is also making overall progress on crime and other important issues, but it?s hard to know whether that?s because of better coordination among agencies, or the booming DC economy and gentrification.