To reduce economic inequality, do we need better democracy?

Matt Leighninger at Public Agenda: “When people have a say in the decisions that affect their lives, they will be better off economically as well as politically.

This idea has intrigued community development experts, foundation executives, public officials and academic researchers for many years. It has also animated some of the work people and governments are undertaking to address inequality, both in the United States and (especially) in the Global South.

But can a participatory democracy lead to greater economic opportunity? We are just beginning to amass evidence that this idea is true, understand how and why it works, and figure out how to make it happen better and faster.

Over the last two decades we have witnessed a quiet revolution in how governments and other institutions engage the public. Public officials, technologists, engagement practitioners, community organizers and other leaders have developed hundreds of projects, processes, tools and apps that boost engagement.

While they differ in many ways, these strategies and resources have one common thread: they treat citizens like adults rather than the clients (or children) of the state. They give people chances to connect, learn, deliberate, make recommendations, vote on budget or policy decisions, take action to solve public problems or all of the above. The principles behind these practices embody and enable greater political equality.

This wave of experimentation has produced inspiring outcomes in cities all over the world, but it has been particularly productive in Brazil and other parts of the Global South, where engagement has been built into the way that many cities operate. In these places, it is increasingly clear that when people have a legitimate voice in the institutions that govern their communities, and when they have support through various kinds of social and political networks, their economic fortunes improve.

The best-documented cases come from cities in Brazil, where Participatory Budgeting and other forms of engagement have been built into a much more robust “civic infrastructure” than we have in most American cities. In other words, people in these places have a wider variety of ways to participate on a broader range of issues and decisions. Their chances for engagement include online opportunities as well as face-to-face meetings. Many are social events as much as political ones: people participate because they get to see their neighbors and feel like they are part of a community, in addition to being able to weigh in on a public decision.

In these cities, the gap between rich and poor has narrowed, much more so than in similar cities without vibrant local democracies. In addition, governments are more likely to complete planned projects; public finances are better managed and less prone to corruption; people exhibit increased trust in public institutions and are more likely to pay their taxes; public expenditures are more likely to benefit low-income people; public health outcomes, such as the rate of infant mortality, have improved; and poverty has been reduced.

The connection between democratic innovation and greater economic equity raises many questions ripe for research:….(More)”