The Next Wave Of People Power
February 14, 2007
Matt Leighninger is the executive director of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium and the author of The Next Form of Democracy: How Expert Rule is Giving Way to Shared Governance—And Why Politics Will Never Be the Same (Vanderbilt University Press). Leighninger will be speaking in New York at noon on Thursday, February 15 at Demos—220 Fifth Avenue, 5th Floor.. For details, see www.demos.org.
Steve Burkholder , the mayor of Lakewood, Colorado, couldn’t figure it out. Lakewood’s local government had won all sorts of awards for good management, and surveys showed that residents thought he was doing a great job, yet the city budget was going into the red because proposals for sales tax increases (the main source of city revenue in Colorado) had been voted down nine times in the last 30 years. “If people value the services we provide,” wondered Burkholder, “why won’t they give us the revenue we need to provide them?” Lakewood seemed to be the utopia nobody wanted to pay for.
Then Burkholder got an answer. At a public meeting, someone in the audience piped up and said, “Look, we know you’re working hard for us, but what we’ve got here is a parent-child relationship between the government and the people. What we need is an adult-adult relationship.”
This sums up what has been happening in communities all over North America over the last 12 years: a dramatic, generational shift in what people want from their democracy.
In Lakewood and most other places, the relationship between ordinary people and their local government is changing. Citizens may have less time for public life, but they bring more knowledge and skills to the table. They feel more entitled to the services and protection of government, and yet have less faith that government will be able to deliver on those promises. They are less connected to community affairs, yet they seem better able to find the information, allies and resources they need to affect an issue or decision they care about. At the beginning of the 21st century, citizens seem better at governing and worse at being governed than ever before.
On the other side of this divide, public officials and other leaders are tired of confrontation and desperate for resources. In order to address persistent challenges like education, race relations, crime prevention, land use planning and economic development, communities have been forced to find new ways for people and public servants to work together.
Hundreds of these civic experiments—some successful, some not—have emerged in the last 15 years. Local leaders are recruiting large, diverse numbers of people and involving them in small, deliberative groups, big action forums and ongoing structures like neighborhood councils. They are creating new arenas where citizens can compare notes on their experiences, analyze different options, find common ground, make decisions and take action. Their work reaps great benefits, raises new challenges and results in new twists to time-honored questions about rights, representation and power.
In the process, these efforts are reframing our long-running national debate about the role and size of government. Twenty years ago, the Reaganites argued that "big government is the problem." Ten years later, the Clintonites claimed that "big government no longer exists." Today, it is increasingly apparent that the size of government doesn’t matter as much as how it connects with its constituents. We seem to be moving from a dispute about big government to a difficult conversation about how to achieve big governance.
In Lakewood, the conversation continues. Burkholder brought his concerns to the National League of Cities, and served as the first chair of its Democratic Governance Panel. Last fall, after he launched an extensive effort to involve Lakewood residents in shaping the city budget, the sales tax increase finally passed. Now the mayor is trying to figure out how to continue these kinds of deliberations and embed them in the way the community does its business.
“When you get down to it, what we’re really talking about is whether the current form of representative government is obsolete,” says Burkholder. “We seem to be moving toward a different kind of system, in which working directly with citizens may be just as important as representing their interests.”
What will that look like? Burkholder and his counterparts in other cities aren’t sure—but increasingly, they know they need good answers.