Matt Leighninger directs the Center for Democracy Innovation at the National Civic League. He leads the Center’s work in strengthening democratic infrastructure, organizing national engagement efforts, and measuring the quality of engagement and democracy.
Matt has been one of the central figures in democracy innovation over the last twenty years. As a network-builder, convener, author, commentator, researcher, and practitioner, he has helped catalyze and connect the key developments in the recent evolution of democracy. As a result of these varied experiences and roles, Matt is able to articulate a systemic analysis of citizenship – and able to help people create more collaborative, participatory forms of democracy, at a time when they are desperately needed.
Matt played a leading role in the wave of democratic innovation of the 1990s and 2000s, which produced many new face-to-face processes for dialogue and deliberation. Working with Everyday Democracy, and then the local officials and staff of the National League of Cities, he provided on-the-ground assistance to over 100 communities in 40 states. Matt described the lessons learned from these efforts to support active citizenship in his first book, The Next Form of Democracy (2006).
The next wave of innovation, which featured the proliferation of online technologies in the 2000s and 2010s, provided new opportunities for scaling and sustaining engagement. Matt catalogued civic tech platforms, apps, and initiatives, explored the conditions they needed to thrive, and helped people understand how to use them. While working on President Obama’s National Dialogue on Mental Health, he combined smartphone polling and face-to-face dialogue to create Text, Talk, Act, which has provided over 50,000 young people to date with a powerful, personally meaningful experience of active citizenship.
During this time (2006-2015), Matt served as the director of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium, a network of civic practitioners and researchers from around the world. He observed the difference between the temporary engagement strategies used in North America and the more sustained structures for citizenship being pioneered in the Global South, and he began to use examples from Brazil, India, and the Philippines to show how active citizenship can have a sustained, quantifiable impact on corruption, economic vitality, and public health. Matt was one of the main contributors to the World Bank’s online course, “Engaging Citizens: A Game Changer for Development,” which has been taken by over 33,000 people worldwide. He also became one of the popularizers of Participatory Budgeting, a Brazilian invention which is now well-established in Chicago, Boston, and New York City.
As DDC director, Matt convened practitioners, researchers, technologists, funders, public officials, and other leaders in workshops, hackathons, online networks, and the annual Frontiers of Democracy conference at Tufts University in Boston. He helped build Participedia, the world’s main online repository of public participation practices, research, and case studies. During Matt’s tenure, the DDC’s Journal of Deliberative Democracy expanded its readership dramatically and attracted new financial support. To address the mismatch between 20th Century open meetings laws and 21st Century engagement practices, Matt brought together the National League of Cities, National Civic League, American Bar Association, and International City/County Management Association to create a model ordinance and model state act for public participation.
To help train the next generation of leaders in building more democratic communities, Matt and Tina Nabatchi produced Public Participation for 21st Century Democracy (Wiley, 2015). The textbook surveys the role and potential of engagement in K-12 education, health, land use planning, and the work of state and federal governments. It is now the most widely used text for undergraduate and graduate courses on public engagement.
In 2015, Matt became Vice President at Public Agenda, which has been one of the leading nonprofit organizations in the fields of public engagement and public opinion research since its founding in 1975. He was also named Director of Public Agenda’s Yankelovich Center for Public Judgment. Over six years, he brought over $4 million in grants and contracts into the organization.
At Public Agenda, Matt continued advancing democratic innovation as part of a larger team. His Rewiring Democracy report, co-authored with Quixada Moore-Vissing, describes how the parallel development of subconscious technologies and conscious engagement present new threats and opportunities for society. Matt expanded Public Agenda’s work in K-12 education, environmental resilience, and public health (including a six-state project, Community Voices for Health, to strengthen the infrastructure for engagement and connect policymakers with citizens around vital health policy issues). In New York City, Matt and his team created the Cycles of Engagement for Resilience project, which includes three “serious games” that help citizens and other stakeholders grapple with issues related to climate change and disaster recovery. He helped create the Yankelovich Democracy Monitor, an annual national study that gauges the attitudes of Americans toward potential democratic reforms. To meet the many challenges of 2020, Matt’s team produced Text, Talk, Engage to Fight Covid-19 and the Engagement Scorecard, a Yelp-like tool that gives people a way to rate the engagement efforts of public institutions. They organized the Global Learning on Democratic Innovations webinars, in partnership with Club de Madrid and Participedia. The Healthier Democracies project, supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, brought learning about democratic innovations in other countries to US public officials.
Matt developed the project that became the Center for Democracy Innovation during his tenure at the National Conference on Citizenship from 2021-2023. To support efforts to sustain democracy, he worked with the National Civic League on the 9th edition of the Model City Charter. To encourage efforts to scale democracy, he helped organize the Legislators’ Forum on Innovations in Democracy, a workshop and Congressional Exchange involving elected officials from Argentina, Brazil, Germany, and the EU Parliament along with 12 Members of Congress on Capitol Hill. And to clarify how we might better measure democracy, he partnered with the Institute for Citizens and Scholars on the Mapping Civic Measurement project and report.
Matt brings unique skills, knowledge, and experiences to the main challenges in democracy innovation: helping people institute new participatory strategies and reforms, helping them measure their progress, and communicating those stories and impacts in order to demonstrate the tremendous problem-solving potential of democracy and active citizenship.