The Moment for Participatory Democracy

Hollie Russon Gilman at the Stanford Social Innovation Review: “Since the 2016 US presidential election, everyone—including the President and those protesting outside his office—has been talking about bringing the voices of everyday citizens into public life. Several hurdles have prevented the efforts of many groups—including nationwide organizations, civic technologists, social entrepreneurs, policymakers, and advocates championing civic innovation—from reaching and supporting communities that are already engaging citizens in effective ways. These include but are not limited to:

  • The challenge of taking local interventions to national politics
  • Overreliance on data-driven mechanisms versus community-based solutions
  • A lack of definition of political participation beyond elections

Through many disparate efforts runs a persistent question: Where are these citizens? Where, precisely, are people congregating in public life in 2017 America?

One challenge to engaging community residents in civic life beyond simply voting every two or four years is that there is no consensus about what a more robust, participatory model of democracy—one in which people more actively participate in the civic fabric of their community—looks like in the United States. As Harvard Kennedy School Professor Archon Fung noted in an article:

The lack of any background agreement, or even common orientation, on even basic questions about public participation makes the job of those who champion participatory innovation much more difficult. … There would be much more friction and unevenness in elections in the United States if, every two years, supporters of representative democracy had to convince people in every community across the country why voting is desirable and explain how to conduct elections.

For many scholars and practitioners, the answer to where citizens are congregating is a bit of a riddle: Civic life takes place both everywhere and nowhere specific—it is in cities, towns, and communities all across the country, but there is no single center of gravity. That poses challenges for those who wish to mobilize nationwide efforts and who recognize that citizens have finite time. But beneath these challenges, there is also an opportunity to look with fresh eyes on what is already working, and find ways to build on it and bring it to scale.

Below are three models that have the potential to counter these obstacles and scale across communities. It is important to note, however, that unlike getting a product to market, scale in civic engagement does not always mean working on a national level. Efforts should measure civic engagement “return on investment” not just by the number of people reached, but also by the efficacy, equity, and inclusivity of the activity….(More).