A new guide from NLC and DDC can help citizens and local leaders decide how to make their communities more engaging, inclusive, participatory, and powerful. Planning for Stronger Local Democracy is built around two lists: the questions to ask about your community in order to take stock of local democracy; and the building blocks you might consider as part of a comprehensive, sustainable strategy for vitalizing civic engagement in your town. It can be downloaded free of charge at http://bit.ly/PSLDNLC
This guide is intended to help communities take their own next steps on the path of democratic innovation. We have learned a great deal about the strengths – and limitations – of public engagement as it is practiced today. We know how to involve large, diverse numbers of people in face-to-face and online settings that enable them to connect, learn, develop recommendations, and plan for action. These initiatives typically produce a range of significant outcomes, from personal transformation to policy change. But they take considerable amounts of energy and time, and in most cases, they do not seem to shift the long-term relationship between citizens and their public institutions. While they advance equity and distribute power in the context of a particular issue or decision, there may be limits to how equitable, inclusive, and powerful they can be.
With these lessons in mind, many communities are starting to envision more comprehensive, long-term, sustainable forms of public engagement. They are considering how they might create their own recipes for democracy, using civic ingredients such as:
- Neighborhood associations, school councils, and other citizen spaces that have been made more participatory and inclusive
- Proven processes for recruitment, issue framing, and the facilitation of small-group discussions and large-group forums
- Online tools for network-building, idea generation, dissemination of public data, and serious games
- Youth leadership
- Buildings that can be physical hubs for engagement
- Participatory budgeting and other approaches to making public meetings more efficient, inclusive, and collaborative
- Action research and other methods that involve citizens in data-gathering, evaluation, and accountability
- Food, music, the arts, and other social and cultural elements that make engagement more enjoyable and fun
Planning for Stronger Local Democracy is not just a tool for local governments or school systems; in fact, one of the assumptions of the guide is that long-term engagement planning is best done by a cross-sector team of organizations and leaders. An appendix of the guide provides organizing suggestions and sample meeting agendas for these kinds of planning groups.