Public Work and Democratic Professionalism

I am spending six hours of every day co-teaching the Summer Institute of Civic Studies (syllabus here). The course covers roughly 18 separate topics, and I will blog about half of those. Today, I focus my blog notes on Public Work and Democratic Professionalism. The readings are:

  • Harry C. Boyte, “Constructive Politics as Public Work: Organizing the Literature,” Political Theory, 2011
    Albert Dzur, Democratic Professionalism, pp. 35-51, 105-134, 173-206

Public Work

Harry Boyte has developed this concept, along with colleagues.

What happens if you put work at the center of democracy, instead of (for example) communication, contestation, rights, power, voting, or service?

Compare Arisotle’s disparagement of work. Arisotle begins with the premise that “The citizen’s function” is “deliberating and judging (whether on all issues or only a few).” Citizens must be free from doing the necessary tasks of life, which are done by slaves (who do them for individuals) and mechanics and laborers (who do them for the community). “The best form of city will not make the mechanic a citizen.” Note that the mechanic or laborer is not defined by poverty, for some are very rich, but by participation in the marketplace. 1278a13 Politics 1275-8

Consider public work in contrast to deliberative democracy. Arguably, public work offers a better account of motivations (people want to work, whereas not many people want to deliberate), a better account of power (making things confers power, whereas expressing opinions does not), and a better epistemology (if you make things together you understand them better).

What is “public work” as opposed to just any work? Dewey’s formula from The Public and its Problems, p. 177, may be helpful: it is “formed and entertained by those who constitute the public and is about public affairs.”

What is the public work perspective on …?

• Professionalism
• Service
• Market institutions
• Government
• Policy
• Jobs, careers, the workplace

Concrete examples of Public Work?

  • Traditional examples include common pool resources, as investigated by Elinor Ostrom. Note that in some of his work, Boyte treats the assumption of scarcity (emphasized in environmentalism) as a threat to public work, because public work creates things of value.
  • Boyte sees broad-based community organizing and community economic development as examples. Why?
  • Public work has a strong cultural dimension, because: (1) strengthening democracy requires favorable culture, including songs, narratives, traditions, etc.; and producing those forms of culture is public work, and (2) to encourage public work requires a change in culture.

Boyte emphasizes that conflict is an intrinsic and healthy aspect of public work. He also points to civic or democratic professionalism as an example, and that brings us to Albert Dzur’s work.

Democratic Professionalism

Dzur begins with two classical views of professions (covering both the legally recognized professions, such as medicine, and less formal cases, such as journalism).

  1. Social trustee model: Professions have and deserve to have monopolies because they have special skills and ethics and they serve the public, not just their own paying clients. They deserve their monopolies in return for public service.
  2. Radical critique: As G.B Shaw wrote, “All professions are conspiracies against the laity.” Professionals capture rents by monopolizing licenses, and they use jargon, “old boy” networks, and other techniques to avoid competition and to disempower outsiders.

Dzur holds that a third model, democratic professionalism, is actually practiced to a limited degree and offers advantages to the professions as well as the public. It is not a matter of public service. Rather, Dzur defines democratic professionalism (p. 130) as “sharing previously professionalized tasks and encouraging lay participation in ways that enhance and enable broader public engagement and deliberation about major social issues inside and outside professional domains.”

Democratic professionalism offers a response to three questions that Habermas cannot answer: “who will spark public deliberation, where will it take place, how will the strong counterdeliberative forces in American political life be kept at bay?” (p 40). In my terms, Habermas offers values and facts, but no strategy; Dzur’s democratic professionalism is a strategy.

One of Dzur’s case studies is restorative justice, and in a forthcoming book (Punishment, Participatory Democracy, and the Jury), he develops this example and puts it in a broader context.

Background: 2.3 million Americans are behind bars.

The justice system is completely professionalized. Originally, the jury (composed of laypeople) played an important role, contributing local knowledge, moral legitimacy, and empathy to a system that also depended on the judge’s legal training and impartiality. But the proportion of felony cases that go to trial has dropped from one in 12 during the 1970s to just one in 40 recently. Ninety-seven percent of criminal convictions in the federal system and 94 percent in the state systems result from plea-bargains and not trials.

This system is compatible with—and perhaps results from—public opinion. Americans support draconian sentencing laws, and they don’t want to serve on juries. The sentencing laws that they pass give prosecutors enormous leverage, leading to plea bargains. The public is then able to ignore the system, including crimes, trials, and prisons.

The people (acting through the ballot box) have removed the public (convened in the jury box).

But the overall results are disastrous at multiple levels. Most people complain about the enormous cost and disparate impacts of the system. A different critique holds that the communicative purpose of a trial has been lost. The community doesn’t “say” anything to the offender or victim when the case is plea-bargained, no one learns.

Restorative justice began with laypeople (Mennonites and Quakers) but it has mostly been implemented by professionals, who like the cost-savings, beneficial outcomes, and sharing of burdens (pp. 175-6). It comes in various forms, of which the most common example is mediation between the convicted offender and the victim. A more interesting example is the community board, composed of volunteers who hear the particular case and choose an appropriate remedy. Their meetings are formally public and may involve the victims.


  • Professionals’ roles include convicting the defendant and sentencing him/her to restorative justice; preparing materials on each offender; and training the volunteers.
  • Members “take care to introduce themselves” (p. 195). This is unlike a jury. Why?
  • The “board deliberates, sometimes in private but frequently with the offender present.”

Other criminal justice reforms:

  •  “Problem-solving courts” specialize in particular issues, such as drugs or domestic violence. The judges work with social workers and representative of community groups to develop comprehensive solutions to local problems.
  • In youth courts, panels of teenagers are empowered to sentence their peers for minor offences.

Questions for discussion:

  • Are volunteer members of community sentencing boards engaged in public work? Are the judges also involved in public work?
  • Does it matter that they are “volunteers” (i.e., participating by choice, and without salary)? What if they were compelled to serve and paid?
  • Do the values of restorative justice trade off against other values, such as impartiality?
  • Is it realistic to imagine that people will volunteer?
  • Does this reform have the potential to change large-scale criminal justice policy?

Why is there not all that much Democratic Professionalism in America today?

  1. “Technocratic and market-oriented modes of professionalism …. Fit neatly into the rationalized procedures and needs for predictability and control found in modern economic and political organization” (pp. 131-2)
  2. Professionals aren’t taught about democracy
  3. Democratic professionalism is hard: it’s an art and not just a value. It requires training, experience, support, and effective models.
This entry was posted in civic theory, Uncategorized on by .

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.