Democracy Rising is a series of blog posts on deliberative democracy: what it is, why it’s powerful, why the time is right for it, how it works, and how to get it going in your community. The series originates in the United States but will discuss principles and draw upon examples from around the world.
The challenges we face from climate change, extreme weather, biodiversity loss, and all the other symptoms of “Earth overshoot” are, in part, civic challenges. Our ability to respond effectively is complicated by rampant misinformation and the absence of safe spaces for informed, participatory planning. Older forms of public engagement—attending conventional “three minutes at the microphone” public meetings, signing petitions, writing letters to the editor—are insufficient for meeting these challenges and out of step with how Americans live today. If we want to achieve better environmental resilience, we need to upgrade our civic infrastructure.
What do I mean by that? In Public Participation for 21st Century Democracy, Tina Nabatchi and I defined civic infrastructure as “the laws, processes, institutions, and associations that support regular opportunities for people to connect with each other, solve problems, make decisions, and celebrate community.” In addition to deliberative meetings, civic infrastructure can include things like neighborhood online networks, volunteer fairs, crowdfunding programs, lending circles, voter registration drives, participatory budgeting processes, pothole-reporting apps, and other platforms that give people a chance to give input on policy. Civic infrastructure is supported by welcoming public spaces, both physical spaces in communities and virtual spaces online.
Civic infrastructure underpins engagement, planning, problem-solving, and the circulation of useful information. When people are informed and engaged, they are better able to prepare themselves and their communities for extreme weather and other disasters. They know what to do when the power goes off, or when their street is flooded. They can advocate for better emergency facilities in their neighborhoods and give input on recovery plans. (This level of engagement is particularly critical for the people who are most vulnerable to climate change, such as the elderly, parents with young children, and residents of low-income neighborhoods.)
When people work together in planning and problem-solving, they become more informed generally, and they establish relationships with each other and with government officials and staff. These connections are critical for making decisions together, for helping one another during emergencies, and planning for longer-term challenges.
Beyond these instrumental benefits, stronger civic infrastructure is valuable simply because it helps build relationships and social networks. Research in a range of fields shows that strong, ongoing connections between residents, robust relationships between policymakers and their constituents, accessible information on public issues, and positive attachments between citizens and their communities are highly correlated with a variety of positive outcomes, from better public health to greater K-12 student success to resilience in the face of natural disasters.
Howard Law School professor Harold McDougall was one of the first to champion civic infrastructure. He used it to draw a direct connection between engagement and equity. In his 1993 book Black Baltimore: A New Theory of Community, McDougall described the civic infrastructure created and maintained by residents of African American neighborhoods. Over many years, church groups, housing advocacy committees, social workers who built networks among their clients, and other “base communities,” as McDougall calls them, helped Black Baltimoreans build their own power and improve their quality of life. In his essays on civic infrastructure today, McDougall argues that our systems require a combination of top-down (government and other institutions) and bottom-up (community and grassroots energy) forces in order to achieve lasting change. He places small-group discussion at the vital center of all these efforts because they build empathy within communities.
In our neighborhoods and at the national level, American civic infrastructure is in poor shape. Citizens have lost faith in institutions of all kinds. Even before the January 6th attack on the Capitol, few Americans felt that our democracy was functioning well and 40 percent of Americans said the design and structure of our nation’s government need significant change no matter whom we elect to represent us.
Americans are particularly likely to voice strong support for democratic principles. We already have an infrastructure, of sorts, for public engagement: our institutions maintain a number of official opportunities for participation, which already take up a great deal of time, money, and political capital. But do they work? Picture your typical public meeting, where citizens have three minutes at the microphone to address their public officials; generally there is no dialogue, no discussion, no resolution. Like such meetings, most of the official avenues for engagement are frustrating for both citizens and officials. They may even reduce trust in government.
Most of this existing civic infrastructure does not support newer, more successful kinds of engagement. It is not suited to the needs of either citizens or officials. Across party lines, Americans favor democratic reforms that would give them greater authority and voice, along with more equitable, deliberative, collaborative relationships with their governments. These reforms and practices include engagement commissions, large-scale deliberative processes, serious games, participatory budgeting, citizen’s assemblies, SMS-enabled discussions, youth voice programs, and many others.
These kinds of reforms have already been instituted in other countries, from Iceland to Taiwan to Brazil. The city of Cali, Colombia, established local councils that helped increase trust and lower the crime rate; in Bologna, Italy, participatory “district labs” have co-designed improvements to the city’s physical infrastructure. Both cities won the Engaged City Award. Participatory structures have been created at the state and national levels, not just in local governance, in many Latin American countries.
We can upgrade our civic infrastructure by bringing together the strengths of digital technologies and face-to-face discussion, in ways that help people analyze information and contribute directly to decision-making and problem-solving. There are many community networks, government agencies, local philanthropies, and disaster planning systems with the latent potential to be strong building blocks for civic infrastructure, but most of them lack the capacity to interact with citizens in productive, meaningful, scalable ways.
What would it take to deepen that interaction? A more supportive civic infrastructure could uphold a more inclusive, well-rounded civic role for citizens, encompassing the following rights and responsibilities:
- The right and responsibility to vote.
- The right and responsibility to participate meaningfully in public decision-making, on issues and priorities brought to citizens by their governments as well as issues and priorities brought to governments by their citizens.
- The right and responsibility to serve our communities, schools, and country, in a variety of volunteer capacities.
- The right and responsibility to engage respectfully with other community members across our differences.
- The right to public information and the responsibility to use it honestly and fairly.
- The right to assess our democratic institutions and the responsibility to help make them better.
- The right to civic education and the responsibility to actively engage in public life.
At the national level, the Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship championed civic infrastructure as a national priority. Their Our Common Purpose report argues that it provides the scaffolding for all the ways that people engage in public life, from voting to volunteering to having a say on public decisions. Organizations of all kinds can sign up to officially endorse particular OCP recommendations or the plan as a whole, which includes a proposed National Trust for Civic Infrastructure. In our communities and across the country, we need to advance these civic solutions if we are going to meet our most daunting civic challenges.
As Harold McDougall points out, strengthening civic infrastructure will require top-down changes by institutional leaders like elected officials, but it will also take bottom-up efforts by grassroots leaders and by everyday Americans. While all the activities on the list above would be easier and more meaningful if civic infrastructure was stronger, citizens already have many opportunities to vote, participate, serve, assess, and get information and education. By taking advantage of these opportunities, and by advocating for ways of better embedding them into our democracy, citizens can illustrate the larger potential of better civic infrastructure.