The Democracy Reforms Transforming Local Politics
A guest post from Jenna Spinelle on how participatory budgeting, citizen juries, and other programs are making local government more inclusive and creating new civic rituals.
(While I’m on vacation this week, I’m pleased to be publishing a guest post from Jenna Spinelle of the McCourtney Institute for Democracy. See you next week!)
I cut my teeth in local journalism and local politics has always had a soft spot in my heart. But like any other part of politics, it’s easily overtaken by the people in a community who have the most money, power, and influence.
When I started working for Penn State’s McCourtney Institute for Democracy, I began learning about programs that are changing that power dynamic — things like participatory budgeting, citizen-led panels, and civic media.
Some of these might be familiar to you, but I’m guessing that most are not. At a time when our news sources are dominated by the latest drama in national politics, it’s easy to miss information about good work that’s happening at the local level.
The more I learned, the more I was hooked, not just by the concepts but by the people who were working so tirelessly to make change happen in their communities.
These stories have a little of each element that Micah covers in The Connector: politics, movements, organizing and technology. He was gracious enough to offer me a space in his corner of the Internet to talk about democratic innovation at the local level, which is the subject of season 2 of the McCourtney Institute’s podcast When the People Decide.
Building Civic Power
The idea for this season came from the excellent book Civic Power: Rebuilding Democracy in an Era of Crisis by Hollie Russon Gilman and K. Sabeel Rahman. I read it a few years ago and it resonated with me more than any other book about democracy I’d read to date — and I read a lot of them!
The idea of sharing elected officials and other government stakeholders sharing power with citizens is at the heart of both participatory budgeting and lottery-selected panels, also known as citizen juries.
Participatory budgeting, or PB as it’s often called, is when a city or town turns part of its budget over to residents to decide how it should be allocated. It started in Brazil in 1989 and has been implemented in more than 7,000 cities around the world since.
The process differs from city to city, but it typically invites people to develop proposals for how the money should be spent, then vote on which proposals should be funded. The ideas that come forward and the people who vote on them are more inclusive than traditional forms of public engagement, which favor the loudest voices in the room and those who can show up to meetings and hearings on random weeknights.
I had the opportunity to speak with Andrew Holland, a city official in Durham, North Carolina, about its use of PB and was struck by something he said about what a difference this work can make:
A prime example is our true brand new park … where we worked closely with our parks and rec department to invite those individuals from that neighborhood to ask them exactly what type of park equipment would you like? What type of shrubs and plants would you like? It was a very interactive exercise … because we want the project to be a true reflection of that community. So again, park improvement, street trees, we planted over 1500 street trees and underserved neighborhoods.
As I say in the podcast episode, the point of this example isn’t about the shrubs, it’s about the power that the city gave up to the people living in the neighborhood. Durham residents voted to use city funds to update the park and then got to weigh in on what those updates looked like. Those who participated can take pride in the fact that it reflects what they wanted, not what a city employee they’ll likely never meet chose for the park.
The thinking behind PB also applies to the work that Healthy Democracy does on lottery-selected panels, which they cleverly call the “democracy lottery.” The process here is much more intense, with panelists agreeing to dedicate tens if not hundreds of hours of their time to hear from stakeholders and experts before making recommendations to city council about the issue at hand.
One of the most prominent examples of this was in Petaluma, California, where a panel of about 30 residents deliberated for nearly 100 hours on what to do with the city’s fairgrounds property when the lease is up next year.
The process not only gave clarity on what people in the city wanted to see happen with the fairgrounds (basically a more thoughtful version of the status quo), it also allowed people who would never cross paths to meet and form relationships that continued after the panel ended.
Seely Umlaut was one of the people who won the democracy lottery and took part in the panel deliberation. She had just moved to Petaluma and appreciated the opportunity to weigh in as a new resident. She said:
Ultimately, we knew that we wouldn't be the deciders, but we felt like what we were doing was going to have a very big impact ultimately on the people that would decide. We also felt the responsibility of representing all those people that couldn't be there. And so it was the friendships that were made and you felt so much a part of this community. It was like the mini version of our community. It was really cool. That was kind of unexpected.
Rethinking Media and Communication
Structured programs like participatory budgeting and citizen panels are not the only ways that local communities are strengthening democracy. In some cases, the government itself leads the way.
Linda Harris found her way into city government in Decatur, Georgia after working in local news, while Richard Young found his way to local news after attending a city council meeting in Lexington, Kentucky and wondering why no one else was there. Together, their stories represent new ways of communicating what local government does to the public.
Harris started the Decatur 101 class series to educate residents about what local government does and inspire them to serve on volunteer boards and commissions. Young founded CivicLex, a nonprofit media organization covering local government and breaking down complex topics like redistricting and the city budget in ways that are easy to understand.
Here’s how Harris described her team’s rationale for starting Decatur 101:
And our motto was, in the absence of information, people will make up their own. And so let's bring them back. I think it's true in all local governments. People are smart, and they know what they're doing. And they can get passionate about what they're doing if you give them that opportunity. For me, it's always been about communicating and letting people know that, you know, we're not big bad government. Let’s put a face on the government. Once people meet you, then they have a different perspective.
In my mind, these are two sides of the same coin. Harris and Young are both trying to solve the same problem, a lack of clear communication between local government and the people it serves, from different angles.
This work is even more important against the backdrop of news deserts and the continued hedge fund takeover of local news. I’m especially inspired by the Roadmap for Local News and talked with one of the report’s authors, Mike Rispoli, in episode 5.
Rispoli hit on something that I’d been thinking about for a while but never quite knew how to say: What if the local media that takes the place of shuttered newspapers is stronger than what we had before? CivicLex and the other news outlets covered in the Roadmap for Local News are examples of just that.
We think about this kind of concept of a news desert, which is just there’s no local news outlet. But if you dig deeper than that, what you find is that there are, you know, cities and small towns where they have a local media presence, but there are specific communities within that that aren't being served. Civic media has sprung up in response to the growing gaps left by the commercial market. With the commercial market, you know, shrinking and continuing to shrink, and probably will continue even more. These coverage gaps grow and grow and grow. And so you're seeing these very responsive projects and initiatives spring up as a result of that, that are much more focused on meeting people's needs rather than how do I make money.
We Can All be Civic Evangelists
So why am I telling you all this? Because I think these reforms are accessible to any city or town in America. All it takes is someone to champion them.
There’s nothing special about Durham or Petaluma or Lexington or Decatur, except that the people there decided they wanted something different. If we all spent a little less time doom scrolling or reading the latest hot takes about national politics, think about what we could do in our communities.
Eric Liu, the co-founder and CEO of Citizen University, has made this way of thinking his life’s work. He closes the second season of When the People Decide and I’ll leave you with one of the most powerful things he said to me during our conversation:
I'm not sure that my showing up or getting educated on this stuff or joining things is going to make a difference. But I'm going to take that leap of faith on the idea that it might and that by doing that you actually actually change the equation. You actually make it a bit more likely, when you join, that something is going to change because you make it more you set in motion as a positive contagion of joining, and of people saying, “It is my problem. I'm not going to check out. I am going to take a little piece of responsibility for that.”
It’s easy to dismiss deliberative democracy and the way of thinking Eric articulates as overly optimistic, impractical, or even dangerous at a time when democracy as we know it seems to be coming apart at the seams. I get it, believe me, I do. I hear it all the time, which is why I was glad that Hollie Russon Gilman (bringing things all the way back around to the Civic Power book I referenced at the beginning) articulated the response to the detractors better than I ever could when spoke with her:
What's the alternative? Is the status quo going so well? Are there a lot of people who still think you know, America is a beacon on a hill and our democracy is thriving? I mean, none of the data suggests that things are going well. I just read that 61% of Americans reported feeling lonely and 80% of Americans have not gotten together with other people to do something positive for their community in the last year. You don't need to be a political scientist to think that we have some problems with our democracy.
I know that by writing to The Connector’s subscribers, I’m already preaching to the choir on some level, but I hope that these stories will serve two purposes:
To remind you that there is good work happening all over the place, often without a lot of fanfare.
To light a fire under you, someone who is already civic-minded and civic-motivated, to bring some of these reforms to the place where you live.
Thank you to Micah for the opportunity to share a small slice of what I’ve been working on for the past year or so. I hope you’ll listen to When the People Decide to learn more and reach out if you have ideas about other stories of grassroots politics and civic engagement I should be telling on the podcast.