Making Public Participation Legal

This was originally published by Sandy Heierbacher, Director of NCDD. The Foundation is proud to re-post Sandy’s recent announcement of a national initiative to make more meaningful, broad citizen engagement the law, rather than the exception. NCDD and the Deliberative Democracy Consortium (DDC), two members of CommunityMatters Partners, are part of the working group that conceived and developed the initiative. 

Most laws that govern public participation in the U.S. are over thirty years old. They do not match the expectations and capacities of citizens today, they pre-date the Internet, and they do not reflect the lessons learned in the last two decades about how citizens and governments can work together. Increasingly, public administrators and public engagement practitioners are hindered by the fact that it’s unclear if many of the best practices in participation are even allowed by the law.

Making Public Participation Legal, a new publication of the National Civic League (with support from NCDD), presents a valuable set of tools—including a model ordinance, set of policy options, and resource list—to help communities improve public participation. We released the publication at a launch event last Wednesday at the Brookings Institution in D.C. Download this free (but extremely valuable) publication today at:

The tools and articles in Making Public Participation Legal were developed over the past year by the Working Group on Legal Frameworks for Public Participationan impressive team convened and guided by Matt Leighninger of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium (DDC).

In addition to DDC, NCL and NCDD, the Working Group also includes representatives of the American Bar Association, International Municipal Lawyers Association, National League of Cities, Policy Consensus Initiative, International Association for Public Participation, and International City/County Management Association, as well as leading practitioners and scholars of public participation.

Last Wednesday¹s launch event was opened by Darrell West, Brookings VP and director of Governance Studies and the director of the Center for Technology Innovation. Members of an expert panel described the overarching problem as the lack of guiding principles to govern civic engagement.

The panelists included moderator Matt Leighninger, executive director of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium, Lisa Blomgren Amsler, professor of public service at Indiana University, Mike Huggins, former city manager in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and Kevin Curry, Program Director for the Code for America Brigade.

The main remedy the panelists proposed was the Model Municipal Public Participation Ordinance. Amsler said it would be a starting point to set the ground for whoever wants to innovate. The way public participation is defined in the ordinance allows for increased freedom of discussion and innovation. She also advocated for local government offices to appoint an individual to learn about public engagement, pass on that knowledge, and bridge the gap between the local government and the people in regards to public participation.

Leighninger described the situation created by the ordinance as “a model which…does not require public participation in any particular format but enables and supports what we hope will be better public participation.”

Huggins also supported the ordinance because it would create a positive definition of public participation as a public good. He saw it as an important way to foster more communication between government and the public. To Huggins, the ordinance would build a capacity for local elected officials to have support from the community through discussion and innovation.

Download the publication from the National Civic League site at:

Sandy Heierbacher is co-founder and director of NCDD, the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation. NCDD is a network of nearly 2,000 innovators who bring people together across divides to discuss, decide, and take action together effectively on today’s toughest issues.  NCDD serves as a gathering place, a resource center, a news source, and a facilitative leader for this vital community of practice.

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