If You Want to Improve Local Democracy, Start by Getting to Know Your Community

If you want community members to participate productively in public meetings, it helps to have a high level of knowledge about their attitudes, history, and networks. Where do you they gather (both online and in-person)? Who do they trust? To what groups and associations do people belong? How do younger and older people feel? Whose voices aren’t usually represented? Where do people get their information? What is the recent history of attempts to engage the public, and how do people feel about those efforts?

The Center for Democracy Innovation has been actively addressing these questions, collaborating closely with three communities over the past few months to consider and develop innovations aimed at enhancing official public meetings.

As part of the “Democracy Innovations for Better Public Meetings” project, we’re working with the City Council of Boulder, CO, the Public School Board of Mesa, AZ, and the Fayetteville Next Commission and Community Police Advisory Board in Fayetteville, NC.

The diverse local contexts and different types of official forms (city council, school board, boards/commissions), provide an excellent sandbox to understand local assets, issues and challenges, possibilities for interventions in the near term, and potential big-picture changes.

Our approach starts with a basic assumption, which is that if you want to understand how to make changes to local democracy, you need to know the community.

We’ve embarked on studying local civic infrastructure by interviewing local leaders (staff, residents, elected officials, community organizations), reviewing local meeting and state pre-emption laws, past public engagement reports, and we’ve started fielding a ratings tool, the Engagement Scorecard, that allows participants to rate meetings and local democracy generally.

In the coming months, we plan to host a second webinar on what we’ve found; you can watch the first one here.

In the interim, the Center hosted a panel at The Future of Citizenship Conference in Washington, DC on November 30th, 2023. Our guest panelists Marcie Hutchinson, Matt Benjamin and Clarence Anthony focused on several themes:

  1. Identifying the pressing issues within local communities
  2. Including a broader cross-section of the community
  3. Engaging residents in ways that ensure that they feel heard
  4. Exploring innovations in public participation

Now, more than ever, our panelists recognize the pressing need to renovate democracy:

“The testimonies we hear at public meetings don’t represent a good cross-section of the community. The problem is that we’re missing the voices who most need to be heard. We’re missing two-thirds of the community and that’s what policy should be focused on.”

“A lot of this is because of the systems we have in place. The way we conduct public meetings privileges the ‘frequent flyers,’ and doesn’t help us dive into what the community thinks and wants.”

Matt Benjamin, City Councilmember, Boulder, CO

“Mesa School Board meetings have become very contentious. The fissures started growing when we had a bond issue vote, and then they blew up during Covid. Now it is to the point that we have had to hire extra security for parent and board member safety. Our kids need to be the focus, and we need to be role models. Current meeting structures aren’t enhancing two-way communication. We’re hearing the loud and intimidating voices; we’re not hearing from a majority of parents.”

Marcie Hutchinson, Chair, Mesa Public School Board

“Coming from a background in public service, having been a mayor for nearly three decades, I know that the relationships between citizens and public officials have changed dramatically during the time. Officials today often feel bullied and attacked. NLC has survey data on this too: over 80% of the elected officials we surveyed say that the types of confrontations they experience today are “not what they signed up for.” We need to be able to do the business of leading communities and this requires addressing much of the disruption that we have been observing at the local level.”

Clarence Anthony, CEO and Executive Director, National League of Cities

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