Local democratic meetings are facing significant challenges. Some of these challenges include poor or limited attendance, polarized atmospheres that consist of division between members of a community and between members of the public and official staff. The mixture of limited attendance and volatile public settings impacts the quality of discourse and safety for those present in the room, and this tends to trickle into the community more broadly.
The Center for Democracy Innovation is conducting a community engaged research process with three pilot communities across the United States. The Democracy Innovations for Better Public Meetings project is an AAA-ICDR Foundation supported process taking place from 2023-2024.
Not all meetings are facing the same degree of challenges. In fact, many communities do see their meeting structure and proceedings as operating fairly smoothly and with broad support. Unfortunately, less than optimal experiences are common for many, if not most, official public meeting settings. There are challenges in having to balance between making the public feel heard and ensuring that the business of government can proceed in a timely and legally conforming fashion (which can influence the extent to which the public is able to be or feel heard).
There is no one size fits all solution to how communities can make their meetings more inclined to civil productive dialogue because each community is different based on historical relationships, political dynamics, and legally binding requirements. However, we do feel that there are ways to make the atmosphere of official meetings both supportive of the public and the work that government or public sector staff need to do.
Guided by a foundation rooted in participatory and deliberative democracy, we are working closely with staff and community members of a school board, a city council, and two boards/commissions, each representing a respective community.
Our approach is three-fold: 1) To conduct a civic infrastructure scan of the community, including semi-structured interviews with non-profit organizations/grass roots groups, the media, elected officials, government staff, and members of the public. 2) Have attending members at official public meetings rate their experience using our civic engagement scorecard, i.e. aspects of meeting structure and community interactions. 3) Host a strategic visioning with the community and official staff of a particular community based on the findings from the civic infrastructure scan and civic engagement scorecard.
The goal is to support communities by taking a 10,000-foot view of the strengths and challenges that official meetings face in each pilot by using data informed tools. The process is completely collaborative and iterative, and meant to be a partnership between the League and members of each community.
Stay tuned for more webinars on the project where we’ll speak to the lessons learned from each pilot community.