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The New Laboratories of Democracy:
How Local Government is Reinventing Civic Engagement

By Mike McGrath
PRESENTED BY PACE Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement
May 2009



INTRODUCTION

On behalf of PACE, I am pleased to introduce this report, “The New Laboratories of Democracy: How Local Government is Reinventing Civic Engagement.” The past 15 years have seen an amazing burst of fresh thinking and innovation from local governments as they foster a more active and meaningful role for citizens in planning and decision-making. This paper is an effort to capture some of the major changes and lessons from that time, both to help funders better understand how citizens are being engaged by the public sector, and so local governments can learn what their colleagues have done to reinvent the relationship between public officials and the citizens they serve.

State and federal agencies have also done their share of innovative work during this time, but local gov- ernments are particularly well suited to be laboratories of civic experimentation. City and county officials have a unique ability to convene citizens, and the advantages of proximity, jurisdiction and scale make it possible for planning efforts and public discussions to result in tangible outcomes in neighborhoods, communities and regions.

In addition, local government is the place where citizens feel the strongest desire to be heard, and the issues being dealt with are those that literally hit closest to home. Local officials have the responsibility to provide essential services that people from all walks of life depend upon, and if they fail to do so promptly or efficiently, they soon hear about it from a growing network of individuals, neighborhood associations and community-based organizations. Historically, local government’s record in providing services or mak- ing decisions in an equitable fashion has not been spotless, but in recent decades, many public officials have come to see equity and participation as guiding values that are as important as traditional mea- sures of efficiency and effectiveness. In many communities, mayors, council members and professional administrators have joined the forefront of efforts to develop new grassroots structures and venues for democratic decision-making.

This search for authentic, community-based forms of participation, however, did not begin with munici- pal government. As the report suggests, it dates back to the early 1960s and the anti-poverty initiatives of foundations, nonprofit groups and the federal government. In 1962, the Ford Foundation launched its “Gray Areas” program, which formed locally controlled “community development corporations” to man- age and design neighborhood-based projects. These CDCs worked with other organizations and govern- ment agencies to improve their communities. When the federal Economic Opportunity Act was passed in 1964, it embraced the idea that new programs should be administered with the “maximum feasible participation” of the people who lived in areas to be served.

By the 1970s, cities began to experiment with decentralized neighborhood councils and priority boards designed to engage and involve larger numbers of citizens in the day-to-day processes of governing. During the 1990s, a variety of trends and conditions led to the development of temporary ad hoc organizing and planning efforts. The effectiveness of grassroots organizing techniques, combined with increasing levels of citizen distrust, coincided with a renewed interest in dialogue and deliberation, comprehensive community-building programs and environmental activism.

Today, technological change is a driving force and a big unknown in the future of civic engagement and experimentation. The Internet gives citizens instant access to a wide range of information and provides new avenues for grassroots organizing and public policy discussion. Web-based “citizen journalists” are adding new, if often discordant, voices to the marketplace of ideas, while government agencies are finding ways to use the Internet to inform and engage citizens. Social networking tools are being applied to communities in ways we could not have imagined even five years ago.
Members of the philanthropic community have an important role to play in guiding this loosely connected, evolving field of civic engagement. That community’s direct support for specific local experiments has been invaluable, not to mention its assistance to nonprofits, community organizations, public sector associations and government agencies seeking to develop and hone new tools, techniques and forms of evaluation. As advocates of public participation and deliberative democracy often point out, healthy democracies depend on the ability of all sectors—public, private and nonprofit—to forge creative alliances and successful col- laborative initiatives. And as this report indicates, many of these alliances and initiatives are made possible through the support of philanthropy.

PACE commissioned this report on local innovation and change to further its mission of advancing the cause of civic engagement within the philanthropic sector. Dozens of public officials, both elected and appointed, as well as funders, scholars, community activists, nonprofit managers and facilitators were interviewed over a period of months in an effort to catalogue and assess these new approaches to public participation.

This report was produced with support from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, and PACE thanks that organiza- tion for its support in this effort and in the work of our organization. I would also like to thank the many local officials, academics, foundation executives, program officers, social entrepreneurs and community ac- tivists who responded to requests for interviews, information and feedback. I hope this report will stimulate new thinking, in both the world of philanthropy and the world of local government, on the future of civic engagement and help spread the word about existing successful examples of innovation and change.

Christopher T. Gates
Executive Director
Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement