Planning for Stronger Local Democracy

Here is a spectrum of public engagement appropriate for local governments in the United States. The activities range from “circulating information” to giving the public a role in “deciding and acting.”

It is based on a spectrum developed by the IAP2, but I have pasted this version from a new report entitled Planning for Stronger Local Democracy: A Field Guide for Local Officials. Written by Matt Leighninger, the Executive Director of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium,  and Bonnie Mann, Project Manager at the National League of Cities, this report is a practical guide for public officials who recognize a “‘Catch-22’ dilemma: public trust in government has declined steadily, while the active support and engagement of citizens has become increasingly critical for solving public problems.” The local officials who figure as positive examples in the report have figured out how to engage the public in governance–to mutual benefit.

The first part of the report is organized around a series of major questions, each accompanied by additional specific questions, examples of success, and other advice. Some of the major questions are nitty-gritty, such as “What are the legal mandates and restrictions on how you interact with the public?” Other questions indicate that formal structures and processes are not the only factors that matter; local officials ought to be concerned about civil society as a whole. For example: “How well are neighborhood associations and other grassroots groups serving their neighborhoods?” Still other questions raise essential issues of diversity and inclusion. For example: “In what ways are recent immigrants and other newcomers connected, or disconnected, from the rest of the community?”

The second part of the report is a guide for “Developing Shared Civic Infrastructure.” The practical outcomes could range from using social media more effectively to changing laws or even building physical spaces where people can meet.

If it’s true that distrust for government and for other citizens is preventing us from governing ourselves as a democratic people, then this report ought to be required reading for all leaders.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.