Please Help ZNet
We all admire the power of art. We praise the power of creative entrepreneurship. We are impressed by the power of athletes. But some of us aren’t comfortable talking about power in politics. While power is the currency of activists, to others it may sound inflammatory—a topic to be avoided unless we want a fight. Still, listen for words like “influence,” “impact,” “authority,” or “control” and notice where and when they’re applied. Whatever we call it, power is a crucial element of democracy.
I have described “slow democracy” as local decision making that is inclusive, deliberative, and empowered. While that can seem like a tall order, combining these three elements as a package offers a kind of magic stardust that allows public engagement to avoid painful pitfalls. Functioning with only two out of three leads us to dark places:
- Deliberation + Power, without Inclusion: This is the classic “back-room deal” many of us have come to expect from cynical politics. (I discuss how to strengthen inclusion here.)
- Inclusion + Power, without Deliberation: This describes, all too often, practices such as initiatives, referenda, and recalls. These direct-democracy reforms were originally created with the laudable goal of empowering voters. However, critics maintain that they weaken informed democracy and instead lend themselves to polarizing slogans and manipulative special-interest power grabs. Unfortunately, “populist processes have led to anti-populist realities.” (Revealingly, adding a face-to-face deliberation process can alleviate the worst of these tendencies, as we will see below with the Citizens Initiative Review process.)
- Inclusion + Deliberation, without Power: How many of us have teamed with neighbors, committed hours of heartfelt effort to a project, only to realize bitterly that our ideas would be ignored by leaders?
Public engagement must be connected to power. Democratic leaders have been getting this one wrong for decades. Back in 1969, activist Sherry Arnstein decried disempowered public engagement, observing caustically,
“what citizens achieve in all this activity is that they have ‘participated in participation.’ And what powerholders achieve is the evidence that they have gone through the required motions of involving ‘those people.’”
How, then, can we make sure our efforts have power, and wield that power in the most democratic ways possible? Let’s consider the “who, when, why, and how” of empowered engagement.
With the exception of super-villains from Marvel Comics, most of us do not actually want all the power all the time. The fact is, there are plenty of things we’re happy allowing others to decide. As one urban planner noted, everyone wants to know their garbage will be collected, but not everyone needs to attend the meeting where the garbage truck route is determined.
Leaders should be transparent, and community members should be informed, about where the decision-making power is in any engagement process. The dashboard on our cars gives us feedback on our vehicle’s various power metrics—like how fast we’re going and how much fuel we have. Likewise, it would be helpful if every decision-making process came with its own “power gauge.” Who decides? The power gauge might depict the needle pointing to the left end of the gauge to show that leaders hold all the decision-making power; in the middle, leaders and the public will decide together; and when the needle is pointing to the right, the public will make the final call.
Find out who decides. Is public participation in this process worthwhile? If the needle is not set to your liking, you should know it before you engage, and make sure others know too. And if you want to shift the needle, work to do so as early as possible—not at the end when it’s too late.
Both leaders and community members should think strategically about when to make decisions together. Projects are especially likely to benefit from empowered public engagement if one or more of these situations is present:
- It’s early enough to make a difference. Brainstorming ideas, setting goals, and prioritizing actions are all likely candidates for empowered civic participation.
- The project will have a broad reach. If a proposal affects a large population, it makes sense to incorporate the wisdom of a wide range of stakeholders.
- Complexity is high. When projects are complicated, misinformation and misunderstandings can quickly take root. Done well, engagement will help people grapple with issues and trade-offs constructively, and the project will benefit from more diverse perspectives.
- Community consensus is weak or missing. Well structured, open, and empowered decision-making can help reduce suspicions, controversies, and pushback. This allows both leaders and the public to focus productively on the real issues.
- There’s been a historic power imbalance. Transparency and power-sharing are crucial to healing a history of marginalization. Period.
It is critical that those who hold the decision-making reins determine why they want to engage the community. They can then match their techniques to their goals.
When it comes to power, perhaps the most frustrating public engagement occurs when there’s a mismatch between expectations and experience. Meeting attendees are angry if they arrive expecting to express their views then find out that it’s an informational meeting with no public comment allowed. Paradoxically, tempers also flare when they arrive expecting information, but the meeting was designed to gather comments so no one is available to respond to questions.
The International Association for Public Participation offers a spectrum to help guide public engagement design based on power. It offers five levels of engagement:
- Inform: At this least-empowered end of the spectrum, the goal is to provide balanced information to help the public understand. Tools might include flyers, websites, and open houses.
- Consult: To solicit ideas and comments from the public on an issue, appropriate tools include surveys and focus groups.
- Involve: In the mid-range of empowerment, working directly with the public to make sure their ideas are understood could include techniques such as visioning exercises and deliberative small-group discussions.
- Collaborate: Partnering with the community to develop alternatives and prioritize action steps might involve creating advisory committees and consensus meetings.
- Empower: When the final decision is up to the community, tools include Participatory Budgeting and a binding public vote.
Each of these goals is appropriate for different moments. Good democratic engagement is not a single event; it’s a series of opportunities. In each case, be sure the tool matches the goal, and that the purpose of any engagement effort is crystal clear.
Across the world, leaders and community members have created a tapestry of diverse methods to balance leaders’ and residents’ quest for power. Here are a few notable examples.
Participatory Budgeting (PB) is a citizen-centered process that empowers community members to make decisions about discretionary parts of their public budget. First pioneered in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 1989, participatory budgeting has now been implemented in over 7,000 cities across the globe, employed in states, counties, cities, schools, housing authorities, and other institutions.
No one knows their community better than its residents. That’s why leaders find PB so valuable; it incorporates residents’ priorities. PB works through an annual cycle that typically begins with inclusive brainstorming process so that residents can generate project ideas, from bike lanes to parks to new public programming. Volunteer delegates then develop ideas into proposals; residents vote on those proposals; and the institution funds and implements the top vote-getters. Designed to deepen democratic engagement, improve equity, and strengthen community, this welcoming process is founded on community-powered change. Because of this, PB has inspired fresh engagement from community members who have historically been shut out of decisions.
Citizens’ Initiative Review (CIR) gives an old system a much-needed update. The initiative and referendum system, used in two dozen American states and many cities, allows voters to create public policy through ballot measures. In Oregon, leaders were concerned that this direct democracy process, while allowing voters substantial power, was missing a key ingredient: deliberation. Sure, voters could talk with neighbors and do their own research, but there was no built-in forum for public give-and-take on ballot initiatives before voting. Well-funded, high-stakes campaigns often oversimplified or skewed the issues, and surveys showed that voters were frequently not well informed before they voted.
Through CIR, a random sample of 20 voters gather to do a deep dive on ballot measures. This “mini-public” reads, interrogates experts on all sides of the issues, deliberates, and distills their learning into an overview of the most salient issues. The process combines the values and experiences of lay citizens with the insights gained from a well-run deliberative process. The findings are distributed statewide in an official Oregon Voters’ Pamphlet. The collaborative process between public officials and citizens helps bring more empathy and rationality into the ballot process, and thanks to CIR, studies show that voters are better informed.
New England Town Meetings: In the northeastern United States, many New England towns have governed themselves for centuries using a traditional method of direct, deliberative democracy called town meetings. A far cry from the raucous “town hall meetings” staged by some politicians, the New England town meeting is a deliberative democratic body. Here, on issues of finance and governance, every voter can participate and serve as the legislative branch of their town’s government. In a face-to-face format, they can amend the budget and take other binding action from the floor. While the system is not perfect, a comprehensive 30-year study of Vermont town meetings offers insights that could inform deliberative democracy in other places. Among the most transferable findings:
Scale matters. Town meeting research reveals that smaller towns get better per-capita turnout than larger ones. Structuring decision-making on a human scale, where people can feel their impact most authentically, improves participation. As we also see with Participatory Budgeting, many community members find adding their voice to neighborhood-level issues like bike paths can feel more valuable than trying to make a difference on global policy issues. Both are needed, so more power to them!
Power matters. Besides town size, the single strongest variable for town meeting participation is whether there are hot issues on the agenda. While many political scientists believed that Americans dislike controversial meetings, town meeting data proved them wrong. Analysts believe the difference is that a New England town meeting is not simply a show or a place to sound off; it is an empowered deliberative body. In the end, people are willing to engage with difficult issues if they trust that through a fair process, they can make a real difference.
When local leaders and active residents share power, deliberative democracy shines. Here are a few tips to consider as you work to make your local processes more empowered:
- Consider why power sharing is a challenge. Local leaders may have legitimate concerns that public engagement will derail their hard work or foist unrealistic new assignments on them. It’s important to demonstrate that by sharing power, leaders will actually make more progress. Community groups should make themselves trustworthy, looping leaders in on their work from the beginning and demonstrating their commitment to shared goals.
- Highlight the benefits. Many leaders already recognize the advantages of sharing power. They have seen that it increases public trust, informs projects, and improves outcomes. Local leaders tend to trust other leaders, so find another community that has an empowered deliberative democracy process you admire, and arrange a conversation with leaders in your community.
- Be transparent about the who, where, and when of decision making. In every process, identify it early and communicate it often. Some groups have taken to creating a project timeline, on a presentation slide or even on a large roll of newsprint, and displaying it at every meeting. Pointing to the timeline dotted with public meetings and decision inflection points, they’ll remind the community, “This is where we’ve come from; here’s where we are now; and over here is when we will make the final decision.”
- Create a public engagement protocol for your community. More and more cities are formalizing a system for public engagement. In Portland, Oregon, the parks and recreation department begins every project with a public-involvement assessment to evaluate public impact, public interest, and controversy. Planners then match the participation need with the appropriate tool. Staff have welcomed the clarity and strategic value of the system.
Across the world, communities that offer more inclusive, deliberative decision-making power are rebuilding trust in democracy. Building on decades of success, the Participatory Budgeting organization now houses a collaborative national campaign aptly named Democracy Beyond Elections to respond to what over two dozen organizational partners identify as a crisis of credibility in American government. The coalition plans to build political support and pilot additional programs to model equitable, participatory democracy. New models of democratic governance, led by communities, are needed. As these organizers argue,
“This means committing to radically reimagine what participation and civic engagement really entail—including tangible and consequential power sharing.”
Power is the essential element that prevents public engagement from just being “participating in participation.” Power, inclusion, and deliberation work together—slowly but surely—to yield stronger, more resilient communities.
 Susan Clark and Woden Teachout, Slow Democracy: Rediscovering Community, Bringing Decision Making Back Home (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2012).
 “The Gavin Newsome Recall Is a Farce: Most Californians want no part of this nonsense”; https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/08/opinion/california-gavin-newsom-recall.html.
 Sherry Arnstein, “A Ladder of Citizen Participation,” American Institute of Planners (July 1969): 219.
 Find the “Spectrum of Public Participation” (copyright International Association of Public Participation www.IAP2.org) and other valuable public participation tools at https://www.iap2.org/mpage/Home.
 John Gastil and Katherine Knobloch, Hope for Democracy: How Citizens Can Bring Reason Back into Politics. (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2020).
 Frank M. Bryan, Real Democracy: The New England Town Meeting and How It Works (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004). See also Susan Clark and Frank Bryan, All Those In Favor: Rediscovering the Secrets of Town Meeting and Community (Montpelier, Vermont: Ravenmark Publishing, 2005), www.vtinstituteforgovt.org.