Sharing in Democracy Amongst Changes in Local Government

Rapid political, technological, and social changes are posing challenges for local leaders. A recent conference on “Reimagining Local Government,” hosted by the International City and County Management Association, provided some perspective on these challenges. These disruptions affect communities at many different levels, but particularly impact how people see and relate to local government and how they identify with shared values of democracy. 

These new pressures are a main focus of the Center for Democracy Innovation at the National Civic League, which is producing tools and practices to help local leaders strengthen, scale, and measure local democracy.  

At the conference, the three disruptions were categorized by John Nalbandian, a professor at University of Kansas and former mayor of Lawrence:  

National politics. National politics are filtering down to local communities. Nalbandian warns that “All politics is local has become all politics is national.” In some cases, community members are bringing the arguments of national parties and figures into local discussions. In other cases, state legislatures are taking actions that impact local jurisdictions, from freedom of speech, to gun control, to housing and land use.  

Technology. The next wave of technological changes is producing new threats to public data and new shifts in engagement and transparency. Local governments must now be aware that all of their data and operational systems – from phones to files to HVAC systems – are targets for hacking. The costs and budgets aligned with security are new, costly additions to many local government budgets. Technology has also made it possible for everyone to be present at every key meeting and also be an expert (or at least a well-informed citizen) on issues of common concern. Residents can zoom in to meetings, we can search for answers or examples to address our community issues. Nalbandian argues that we now tend to value a staff’s role as more of a consultant, in a role of validating good information and working with community members to reach decisions.  

Societal Issues. In many communities, there are dramatic differences in how people view social issues. This impacts community identity – how residents think about who we were, who we are, and who we will become. Nalbandian believes that these social changes widen the gap between political acceptability and operational sustainability. One example is government contracting and purchasing. Changes in internal operational policies that better address broadening the opportunities for local and diverse businesses may not be a priority for the purchasing agent, but have been proven to have an economic impact in communities. Policies and procedures may need to be updated and refreshed. Economic recovery of small and diverse businesses in our post-pandemic world is a key element of community sustainability. Nalbandian presented a powerful quote from a city professional from Oregon that amplifies the point: “We are having a racial reckoning in our society right now and it is driving a relook at our institutions. Communities are coming to terms with the fact that our institutions are perpetuators of racist policies, practices and behaviors and because of that, there is a deepening distrust of our institutions and the people in them... City departments perpetuate (knowing and unknowingly) racist policies from purchasing and contracting to zoning and housing. Because technical experts (professional staff) are a part of those institutions, they are viewed with skepticism.” 

What can we do together about forms of disruption?  

The National Civic League’s Center for Democracy Innovation is working on a number of these challenges. In one of our initiatives, “Democracy Innovations for Better Public Meetings” (supported by the AAA-ICDR Foundation), we are examining the quality of engagement and democracy in official public meetings. To address these situations where incivility and tensions are high, we will help cities make official public meetings more participatory, equitable, reasonable, and efficient. 

For cities deciding how best to use technology, the Center can use civic infrastructure scans to illuminate the local online scene, and we can help develop an overall engagement strategy that uses a range of digital tools (and in-person practices). 

For cities considering how to make local governments address racism more effectively, the Center has outlined several areas of work, from examining the history and governing documents of an institution to establishing better internal processes for discussing difference to gathering and sharing data in new ways.  

Dealing with the disruptions in local governance requires that we face some core questions together. What contributes to a more productive, effective and engaging community at this time in our history?   What structures are needed to make engagements more trusting, safe and productive? In a disruptive environment, what approaches can help us renew our democracy?   

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