Making Democracy Work Institute

As part of the International City/County management Association’s leadership development program, a cohort of local public managers has been participating in a series of “learning exchanges” organized by the Charles F. Kettering Foundation to trade ideas and experiences on innovative forms of citizen engagement and democratic governance.

The name of the effort—the Making Democracy Work Institute—echoes the title of Robert Putnam’s classic study of regional governments in Italy, which underscored the importance of social capital and active citizens and voluntary associations in determining the health of democratic institutions.

One of Kettering’s research hypotheses is that “democracy requires responsible citizens who can make sound decisions about their future and can act on these decisions,” but too often citizens feel sidelined from decision-making and distrustful of government and other important institutions.

Although according to opinion polls local governments tend to enjoy higher levels of trust than do state and federal agencies, the roundtable conversations often revealed a growing worry about the levels of anti-government hostility and political polarization they were seeing in their communities. Some of the managers felt they had to spend too much time responding to the anger of the angriest citizens and not enough time engaging with other members of the community.

Before the onset of the pandemic, the exchanges were held at the Kettering Foundation campus near Dayton, Ohio (subsequent exchanges were held via Zoom). Each participant was assigned a “coach” to help develop ideas and identify ways of engaging with citizens, among them; Wendy Willis of Oregon’s Kitchen Table, Martín Carcasson of Colorado State University’s Center for Public Deliberation; Peggy Merriss, a former city manager in Decatur, Georgia; and Cheryl Hilvert, a ICMA’s midwestern regional manager.

The exchanges would often include a presentation from a scholar or leader in the field, preceded and followed by roundtable conversations. But some of the most illuminating conversations and learnings occurred in informal settings, over lunch or dinner, in the buses taking them to and from the hotels they stayed in or over drinks in hotel lounges.

“I’ve definitely learned a lot by listening to the speakers and the staff type people,” noted one participant, a deputy village manager in Texas, “but sometimes it’s not so much what we’re learning during the day in the program but those conversations at meals or on the bus.”

It is not uncommon for lasting bonds of affection and mutual support to be forged at Kettering exchanges, and the Making Democracy Work group was no exception during the nearly two years that the group was meeting. In between exchanges, members of the group have kept up a steady stream of e-mails, congratulating one another promotions and accomplishments and consulting each other

The camaraderie was so genuine that members of the group were reluctant to quit after the program completed its course. “We really want to continue in some form or fashion,” said the deputy manager. “I’m excited about continuing the learnings but also to continue the relationships we have with one another. It’s been an incredible resource and a fantastic side benefit to all of this.”

In the meantime, ICMA’s leadership development program, in partnership with the League and the Kettering Foundation, has begun to assemble a new cohort of public managers to focus on how public managers and citizens can engage democratically to foster racial equity and inclusion. In November, the organizers held a planning meeting via Zoom and as this newsletter item was being written, ICMA was in the process of selecting twenty participants.

National Civic League President Doug Linkhart was one of the organizers of the Making Democracy Work Institute and League staff have been active participants in the learning exchanges.

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