Seven Ways to Increase Community Power in Local Decision-Making

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.

Many towns have little civic infrastructure, and every town could use more of it. Strong civic infrastructure manifests itself in different ways. In one town, gathering places promote dialogue, while residents of a neighboring city might communicate through online forums. Other communities are great at participatory planning processes, or hosting inclusive public meetings.

By pooling tools and resources, CommunityMatters partner organizations offer diverse opportunities to promote citizens’ power to influence decision-making. Here are seven ways to build civic infrastructure in your town:

Invite people to the table (and keep them there)
Dialogue, deliberation and other innovative group processes help people come together across differences to talk, listen and strengthen relationships. The National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD) Resource Guide on Public Engagement offers valuable resources, points of contact and case studies.

Lead with values
The Orton Family Foundation’s Heart & Soul Community Planning model helps community members identify deeply held shared values to ensure that what they care about most guides change and decision-making. The Heart & Soul Community Handbook provides online resources on project design, outreach and communications, building partnerships, engaging youth, and using storytelling and the arts to help identify community values.

Give people good opportunities to contribute
Create goals and options for democratic governance. If you have citizens at the table because they care about a particular issue, find ways to sustain their involvement with opportunities to share their skills and expertise. Planning for Stronger Local Democracy: A Field Guide for Local Officials is a toolkit designed to help city leaders strengthen civic infrastructure through shared responsibilities and mutual accountability.

Focus on people-powered possibilities
Grassroots Grantmakers helps people-powered organizations turn possibility into reality. Its distinguishing characteristics: focusing on what people can do better together rather than what agencies or institutions can do for them, helping people move from dreaming to doing, and investing in people as critical change-makers. Big Thinking On Small Grants, a series of blog posts by Grassroots Grantmakers’ Janis Foster Richardson, inspires support of and action by everyday citizens.

Engage online and offline
Offer multiple ways for people to interact with government, both online and offline. The New America Foundation’s California Civic Innovation Project (CCIP) researches emerging practices that enable adoption of innovative policies, technology and programs that deepen community engagement. Check out the Foundation’s Hear Us Now? A Survey of Digital Technology’s Role in Civic Engagement and Local Government for great ideas and insight related to online engagement.

Quit being broke
Existing paths of development in cities and towns across the country are unstable, relying on fiscally unsound funding of long-term maintenance and infrastructure improvements. The Strong Towns Curbside Chat Program covers the causes and impacts of the current economic crisis, examines case studies on the finances of America’s development pattern, reviews “dead ideas” of the suburban era we need to shed and proposes strategies for adjusting to the new realities we face.

Focus on place
Placemaking is a catalyst for building healthy, sustainable and economically viable cities and towns. Project for Public Spaces (PPS) uses placemaking strategies and tools to capitalize on a community’s assets, inspiration and potential in order to design and build appealing public spaces. Find tools and guides to help create vibrant places in your community on the PPS website.

CommunityMatters partner organizations include: Deliberative Democracy Consortium, Grassroots Grantmakers, National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation, New America Foundation, Orton Family Foundation, Project for Public Spaces, and Strong Towns. CommunityMatters and the partnership were conceived by the Orton Family Foundation, with offices in Colorado and Vermont.

Tracy Timmons on March 29, 2013

Where can I locate more information about the Cafe' Commons comment that was part of the postcard show from Newport?

Caitlyn Horose on April 11, 2013

Good question! The comment refers to Conversation Cafe. You can find more information about this, including how to host a cafe in your community, at Another great resource that I'd recommend is the NCDD presentation from the Newport workshop where Diane Miller highlights this technique. We haven't heard whether anyone in Newport is actively working to organize an event of this type, but if we do, we'll certainly keep you posted on the efforts and outcomes.

Harold McDougall on May 8, 2013

Having coined the term "civic infrastructure" in 2009 (I shared it with Matt Lehninger at the time), I find myself taking something of a proprietary interest in it.

What you describe here I would call "civic capital,” as it has not yet been organized into a working structure adequate to meet the challenges we now all face.

By civic infrastructure, I meant a level of community organization which at once engages the majority of the population and does so without a hierarchical model. Jefferson’s Assemblies are a good example. See Gary Hart’s blogs and book on Jefferson’s Ward republics for further information, as well as my own 2012 Huffington Post blog on civic infrastructure, which can be found at

Finally, I have published a professional article on the subject which will appear in the Howard university law Journal in the next month or so.


chorose on May 14, 2013



Thanks so much for your comment! And, I certainly appreciate your interest in keeping the term true to its origins. 


I’ve found the National Civic League’s Community Visioning and Strategic Planning Handbook (2000) a useful guide for my thinking about civic infrastructure, which it defines as informal and formal networks and processes for making decisions and solving problems.  However, you (along with Matt Leighninger and others) have evolved the idea in positive ways so that it now refers to a more robust and enduring system with sustained structures for healthy civic culture.


I believe that one way to start building civic infrastructure is to begin with empowering citizens through involvement in problem-solving and decision-making processes. The connection was not clear enough in my post – that by beginning with the tools offered, people can work toward establishing a working structure.


Citizen’s Assemblies are one way to create civic infrastructure. And in the right places, they work wonderfully (like in Ontario for electoral reform). However, I think civic infrastructure can look differently in each community (at least at the local level); the structure can be tailored to a community’s particular skills and strengths.  And, a menu of options offers multiple entry points for engagement.  Interesting examples are emerging in places like Chicago, where a Community of Practice is working to build civic infrastructure around dialogue and deliberation.


I’m excited that there is energy and interest around civic infrastructure, and interested in how to capitalize on this energy to better understand the role civic infrastructure plays in shaping vibrant and resilient communities.  I hope you’ll stay connected to us at Orton, and in particular to our CommunityMatters program, which is focused (in part) on developing tools and resources to help communities talk about and build civic infrastructure. You may be interested in our last conference call on the topic.


Looking forward to reading your article in the Howard Law Journal!  Thanks, again!



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