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This is the last in a four-part series adapted from the book Slow Democracy: Rediscovering Community, Bringing Decision Making Back Home by Susan Clark and Woden Teachout (Chelsea Green, 2012).
Some people are uncomfortable talking about power. While power is the currency of political activists, it’s a dirty word to many of us—like “money,” it is not mentioned in polite company. But listen for words like “influence,” “impact,” “authority,” and “control,” and notice how often they come up. Ultimately, power is a crucial element of democracy and something we need to acknowledge and discuss in community decision making—early and often.
It would be helpful if every decision-making process came with its own “power gauge.” Imagine a dial like an old-fashioned speedometer that would tell us how leaders answer the question, “Who makes the decision?” At one end, the dial reads “Me”—the leader holds all the power. In the center, “We”—decisions are made together. At the far end, “You”—citizens make the decisions. Exactly where the needle quivers on this dial should be clear to every leader who plans to engage the public, and to every citizen before he or she commits time to the process.
The Power Spectrum
Social change analysts have been fooling around with some version of this “power gauge” for more than 50 years, offering a variety of advice on where to set the needle. (For a radical 1960s perspective, read Sherry Arnstein’s classic “A Ladder of Citizen Participation”.) From the perspective of community leaders, setting the dial on “Me” allows for speedy decisions; as long as leaders make arrangements for the decision to be well informed and implemented, avoiding public involvement saves time.
But if a community ranks other values higher than saving time—priorities such as keeping the public informed, strengthening citizens’ democratic skills, building a sense of community and teamwork, or tapping public opinion and wisdom—then leaders would do well to move the dial toward “You.”
Clearly it makes no sense to have every citizen participate in every decision. (The International Association for Public Participation has a handy guide to help leaders in this analysis.) Citizen participation is most critical for complex and controversial issues, for those with diverse stakeholders, and those where there are concerns about legitimacy and buy-in.
But perhaps most important, timing is key. Early tasks like goal setting, idea generation, and prioritizing alternatives are ideal times for citizen engagement. Never, ever try to “include” the public in a decision that has already been made; there’s nothing worse than fake engagement.
Democratic Impact Statement
You’ve probably heard of an “environmental impact statement”—the form that developers must fill out to show the effect their proposal will have on the local wildlife, and water and air quality. New development proposals are also often assessed on how they impact historical resources, traffic and aesthetics.
Well, if we value our democracy, how about a “democratic impact statement”? While we are making sure our policy-making processes are empowered, we must also consider what effect any resulting new programs or policies will have on the power of local citizens to engage. What impacts, positive and negative (and usually unintentional) can our actions have on local democracy?
For instance, in the case of rural school consolidation, we ask about effects on student learning, program efficiencies, and, of course, spending. Rarely, if ever, do we inquire what impact a policy will have on citizens’ power, or their feelings of connection to their local democracy. When small schools close and several school boards shrink down into one board, what are the effects on citizens’ ability to influence education-related decisions? And what about the role of the school in fostering social capital and citizen engagement? Valued qualities like “community” and “democracy” need to be given voice at the bargaining table alongside “economy” and “efficiency.”
Likewise, planners have long recognized that, while their early attempts at downtown renewal were well intentioned, they often destroyed neighborhoods and shredded connections between neighbors, locally owned businesses, and other strands of invisible but vibrant social fabric.
While a “democratic impact statement” has yet to be invented, with each new policy under consideration let’s ask local citizens: How will it affect your power to make decisions and the likelihood that you will engage democratically?
Communities are becoming increasingly creative in how they boost citizens’ influence, sometimes even handing over decision-making power entirely. For instance, through the Participatory Budgeting process, several wards in Chicago and districts in New York City now empower citizens to initiate and create local projects. The result: citizens making direct decisions about millions of dollars worth of discretionary spending.
In other cities, planners are working hard to give citizens real power in shaping decisions about the future to ensure that the resulting plans foster strong, connected communities. For example, the City of Golden, Colorado involved thousands of residents in its Golden Vision 2030 city planning process, supported by the Orton Family Foundation. With more than 30 percent population grown between 1990 and 2000 and further growth projected, Golden wanted to involve the whole community in the City’s vision for the future. How would the community address new challenges, from affordable housing to neighborhood livability to democratic engagement?
Through inclusive events such as block parties, community summits, and group story listening, organizers were able to distill hundreds of residents’ stories into two guiding principles and ten core community values. The City, in turn, formally adopted these values and incorporated them into the City’s Comprehensive Plan so they would inform future policies, strategic planning, and investment decisions. The values were later incorporated into Golden’s Neighborhood Plans—a testament to the effectiveness of the engagement process and how well the results were received within local neighborhoods.
Power—knowing that their participation will make a real impact on community decisions—makes citizens want to continue engaging in democracy.
In recent posts, Susan Clark offered an overview of “slow democracy,” defined as local decision making that is inclusive, deliberative and empowered. For more information on Slow Democracy, visit: http://slowdemocracy.org/
This is the third in a four-part series adapted from the book Slow Democracy: Rediscovering Community, Bringing Decision Making Back Home by Susan Clark and Woden Teachout (Chelsea Green, 2012).
The scene at the public hearing is all too familiar. A tired-looking panel sits in front of the auditorium at a table cluttered with documents and microphones; although the room is full of chairs, most are empty. Citizen questions and discussion are not encouraged, testimony is polarized and tempers flare.
The “public hearing” is one of the most-used citizen participation processes in the United States, with many local and state governments legally mandated to use it. But leaders and citizens are often frustrated by the format.
While originally devised to improve participation, hearings are too often framed as contests between points of view. They’re not structured to seek common ground or collaboration, and occur too late in a process to be taken seriously.More
CommunityMatters®, a partnership of seven national organizations including Orton, share the belief that people have the power to solve their community’s problems and direct future growth and change.
As leaders in the fields of civic engagement and community and economic development, the partners believe that by strengthening civic infrastructure, communities can become more prosperous, vibrant places to live.
Why is civic infrastructure key? Because, like the physical infrastructure that supports a community’s built environment, civic infrastructure supports the social sphere. It consists of the opportunities, activities and arenas, both online and face-to-face, that allow people to connect with each other, solve problems, make decisions and celebrate community.More
This is the second in a four-part series adapted from the book Slow Democracy: Rediscovering Community, Bringing Decision Making Back Home by Susan Clark and Woden Teachout (Chelsea Green, 2012).
A great example of “outside-the-box” thinking actually comes in a box.
In Essex, Vermont, “Essex Heart & Soul” is working to engage the community in dialogue about the future.
Rather than beg busy residents to attend yet another 7 p.m. meeting, leaders brought the conversation to living rooms and other gathering places across the community with—you guessed it—a “Meeting in a Box.”
It’s an actual box full of printed materials: a discussion guide, priority-setting tools, clipboards, nametags, and more.More
This is the third post in a series that shows how our nine Heart & Soul Principles are coming to life on the ground in small towns across the country.
Principle 3. Build Community—Build trust, seek common ground and encourage civil dialogue. Strive for a community where people listen to each other, understand each other, and embrace differences.
As Damariscotta, Maine’s Heart & Soul project was getting underway back in 2008, native Buzz Pinkham was invited to an event aimed at gathering community feedback on shaping the future of his town.
“When I was originally asked to be part of the process,” says Buzz, “I gave the regular native answer: ‘I don’t have time for that.’”
“Then I got a thing in the mail and it had all the names of people who did have time, and a lot of those people I didn’t recognize. I said, ‘There aren’t any natives in there…and these people are going to decide the future of this town? I can’t have that.’ And so I went to the next meeting.”More
Guest blogger Hannah Orcutt is a former Orton intern now based in the Teton Valley. She recently got in touch to let us know that the impacts of the Heart & Soul approach are still making a difference in Victor.
Victor, Idaho (pop. 1,500), one of the Foundation’s early Heart & Soul project towns, is home to the Teton Valley Community School (TVCS), where I currently work. A central tenet of the school’s philosophy is that community involvement is important.
The Victor community serves as a dynamic classroom for our Pre-K through 6th-grade students. TVCS’s unique project-based curriculum lets teachers harness regional expertise and events as learning tools. The community benefits from our projects, and students learn to be engaged citizens.
It’s a win-win that has resulted in a young generation of active movers and shakers in the Teton Valley.More
Valentine’s Day is right around the corner, and I know what you are probably thinking…it’s a holiday that has been overtaken by the greeting card industry, that is full of obligations and expectations, that is just no fun anymore. But this year, I’m asking you to give good ol’ V-Day a second chance.
You see, Valentine’s Day reminds me of the construction paper hearts from elementary school, the awkwardness of making eye contact with your first crush, and all those little magical interactions that remind us we’re alive.
Sometimes those heart-on-your-sleeve moments are just what we need. In fact, I’d like to think that such moments are ones to be celebrated by whole communities.More
This is the first of a four-part series adapted from the book Slow Democracy: Rediscovering Community, Bringing Decision Making Back Home by Susan Clark and Woden Teachout (Chelsea Green, 2012).
The “slow food” movement began in the mid-1980s with protests against the opening of a McDonald’s near the Spanish Steps in Rome, but it has since inspired untold thousands of supporters across the globe.
Slow food argues that fast food symbolizes much of what’s wrong with the world today. We’ve taken the goal of “efficiency” too far, advocates argue. We need to slow down and understand where our food comes from, and recognize our connection to agriculture, to communities, and to our natural systems. We have a responsibility to do so, for human, economic, and ecological health.
I was thinking about slow food while thinning carrots in my garden one weekend, listening to Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma on my ear buds. That’s when it hit me: the work I had been doing in community development was perfectly aligned with the efforts of the slow food movement. Local, human-scale, interconnected…the metaphor was inspiring, and it brought a wave of fresh, exciting ideas to mind. Slow Democracy!
I ran inside to test the idea out on my husband Mark. He seemed impressed, saying enthusiastically, “Slow Democracy? Great idea! Hey, I bet you could even get the domain name—SlowDemocracy.org!”More