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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
Every year, 120,000 people make a pilgrimage to the Northwestern corner of the Berkshires in Massachusetts and head for MASS MoCA.
They park next to the concrete channels of the Hoosic River and walk into a complex of historic brick mill buildings, repurposed as a world-class museum.
They spend a few hours, or a few days, exploring the cavernous galleries, and they collectively spend millions of dollars on tickets, souvenirs and gourmet food in the museum cafés.
What they usually don’t do is spend much of that time or money a block or two away—on Main Street. And it shows. While North Adams has made many efforts, and admirable progress, to reinvent itself as a vibrant arts community, its Main Street still struggles to fill up storefronts, local businesses struggle to stay afloat, and many residents struggle to find jobs and rise above the poverty line. (Check out this 2012 piece from NPR for the full story.)More
Social media (blogs, social network sites and comment forums) has transformed and democratized the way in which we both receive and provide information and opinion. It has shifted the control of news and opinion away from a limited number of professional reporters and news agencies and turned it over to the public. In 2010, there were nearly one million new blog posts a day.
Given this rapid spread and its indiscriminate nature, social media has been touted as a way to revitalize public discourse and engage new voices. In the Middle East, we have seen it inspire the transformation of political systems. Yet, here at home, has it actually lived up to expectations and improved how we engage in public discussions?More
Digital hangers can now indicate the “like” rating of items.
Restroom breaks can be multi-tasked with twitter feeds dispensed on toilet paper.
And you can now be fully apprised of the carbon footprint of your food selections; a restaurant in Sweden displays the CO2 emissions associated with menu options.
All of this innovation begs the question: How is technology revamping the way we interact with and shape our local places?More
This post is the fourteenth in a month-long series hosted by PlaceMatters on the impressive diversity of participatory decision-making tools that communities can use for land use plans, transportation plans, sustainability plans, or any other type of community plan. The series covers the gamut, from low-tech to high-tech, web-based to tactile, art-based to those based on scenario planning tools, and more. Along with PlaceMatters, we welcome your feedback and would love to hear about the participatory design strategies that you’ve found to be the most useful.
Everyone has a story to tell about his or her community. It doesn’t matter whether you are young or old, native or newcomer; we all have personal experiences that connect us to our city or town. Stories tell us a lot about what we value most—the customs, characteristics and special places that make our community unique.
There are many examples of how stories have been used to understand community, such as Why Here Why Now or Saving the Sierra, and there is also great potential to apply personal story in community planning efforts.
The Orton Family Foundation’s Heart & Soul Community Planning approach uses personal stories to identify what people value in their community. We rely on personal stories for three key reasons:More