Slow Democracy: Power – Do We Talk About It In Polite Company?

This post appeared on May 25, 2013 at the Orton Foundation's Cornerstone Blog. You can see the original post here.

This is the last in a four-part series adapted from the book Slow Democracy: Rediscovering Community, Bringing Decision Making Back Home by Susan Clark and Woden Teachout (Chelsea Green, 2012).

Some people are uncomfortable talking about power. While power is the currency of political activists, it’s a dirty word to many of us—like “money,” it is not mentioned in polite company. But listen for words like “influence,” “impact,” “authority,” and “control,” and notice how often they come up. Ultimately, power is a crucial element of democracy and something we need to acknowledge and discuss in community decision making—early and often.

It would be helpful if every decision-making process came with its own “power gauge.” Imagine a dial like an old-fashioned speedometer that would tell us how leaders answer the question, “Who makes the decision?” At one end, the dial reads “Me”—the leader holds all the power. In the center, “We”—decisions are made together. At the far end, “You”—citizens make the decisions. Exactly where the needle quivers on this dial should be clear to every leader who plans to engage the public, and to every citizen before he or she commits time to the process.

The Power Spectrum

Social change analysts have been fooling around with some version of this “power gauge” for more than 50 years, offering a variety of advice on where to set the needle. (For a radical 1960s perspective, read Sherry Arnstein’s classic “A Ladder of Citizen Participation”.) From the perspective of community leaders, setting the dial on “Me” allows for speedy decisions; as long as leaders make arrangements for the decision to be well informed and implemented, avoiding public involvement saves time.

But if a community ranks other values higher than saving time—priorities such as keeping the public informed, strengthening citizens’ democratic skills, building a sense of community and teamwork, or tapping public opinion and wisdom—then leaders would do well to move the dial toward “You.”

Clearly it makes no sense to have every citizen participate in every decision. (The International Association for Public Participation has a handy guide to help leaders in this analysis.) Citizen participation is most critical for complex and controversial issues, for those with diverse stakeholders, and those where there are concerns about legitimacy and buy-in.

But perhaps most important, timing is key. Early tasks like goal setting, idea generation, and prioritizing alternatives are ideal times for citizen engagement. Never, ever try to “include” the public in a decision that has already been made; there’s nothing worse than fake engagement.

Democratic Impact Statement

You’ve probably heard of an “environmental impact statement”—the form that developers must fill out to show the effect their proposal will have on the local wildlife, and water and air quality. New development proposals are also often assessed on how they impact historical resources, traffic and aesthetics.

Well, if we value our democracy, how about a “democratic impact statement”? While we are making sure our policy-making processes are empowered, we must also consider what effect any resulting new programs or policies will have on the power of local citizens to engage. What impacts, positive and negative (and usually unintentional) can our actions have on local democracy?

For instance, in the case of rural school consolidation, we ask about effects on student learning, program efficiencies, and, of course, spending. Rarely, if ever, do we inquire what impact a policy will have on citizens’ power, or their feelings of connection to their local democracy. When small schools close and several school boards shrink down into one board, what are the effects on citizens’ ability to influence education-related decisions? And what about the role of the school in fostering social capital and citizen engagement? Valued qualities like “community” and “democracy” need to be given voice at the bargaining table alongside “economy” and “efficiency.”

Likewise, planners have long recognized that, while their early attempts at downtown renewal were well intentioned, they often destroyed neighborhoods and shredded connections between neighbors, locally owned businesses, and other strands of invisible but vibrant social fabric.

While a “democratic impact statement” has yet to be invented, with each new policy under consideration let’s ask local citizens: How will it affect your power to make decisions and the likelihood that you will engage democratically?

People Power

Communities are becoming increasingly creative in how they boost citizens’ influence, sometimes even handing over decision-making power entirely. For instance, through the Participatory Budgeting process, several wards in Chicago and districts in New York City now empower citizens to initiate and create local projects. The result: citizens making direct decisions about millions of dollars worth of discretionary spending.

In other cities, planners are working hard to give citizens real power in shaping decisions about the future to ensure that the resulting plans foster strong, connected communities. For example, the City of Golden, Colorado involved thousands of residents in its Golden Vision 2030 city planning process, supported by the Orton Family Foundation. With more than 30 percent population grown between 1990 and 2000 and further growth projected, Golden wanted to involve the whole community in the City’s vision for the future. How would the community address new challenges, from affordable housing to neighborhood livability to democratic engagement?

Through inclusive events such as block parties, community summits, and group story listening, organizers were able to distill hundreds of residents’ stories into two guiding principles and ten core community values. The City, in turn, formally adopted these values and incorporated them into the City’s Comprehensive Plan so they would inform future policies, strategic planning, and investment decisions. The values were later incorporated into Golden’s Neighborhood Plans—a testament to the effectiveness of the engagement process and how well the results were received within local neighborhoods.

Power—knowing that their participation will make a real impact on community decisions—makes citizens want to continue engaging in democracy.