Recent research from the SNF Agora Institute reveals a significant discrepancy in the availability of civic opportunities across different regions of America. At the same time, this research maps hundreds of thousands of place-based groups that encourage people to get more involved in their communities. The neighborhood level is an important element to a vibrant public sphere which can contribute to a healthy democracy and community; however, we need to think about ways to strengthen local groups and create more of them on their own terms. Additionally, it is crucial to embed them in official decision-making processes and connect them to establish networks or relationships that can grow and thrive.
How might a system of neighborhood governance become an embedded feature of local democracy? Democratic practices that go beyond traditional governance are often advocated for and demanded by the public, but we don’t often consider what a comprehensive approach to decentralized participation beneath the municipal level of government looks like, specifically involving neighborhoods and place-based decision-making.
Decentralization is traditionally defined in terms of transferring or sharing authority and responsibility to subnational layers of government or political activity. The ambition of decentralization is to make a complex system more democratically accountable, respond to geographical inequality, and empower the marginalized. Yet, decentralization tends to assume elites are the main operational actors even at a lower governance level.
The broader discussion around decentralization assumes that bringing government as close to the people as possible leads to the democratization of democracy by providing greater opportunities for wider civic engagement and influence. This is not always the case, and one reason is that decentralization is not always carefully thought of as a system of overlapping and robust forms of public decision-making rather something technical that a lower level of government can implement on its own.
Linking neighborhood forms of citizen participation to larger processes of decentralization raises questions about the nature of democracy, and what type of civic activity we want to see as a society. Do we want more direct, empowered, and embedded forms of participation within neighborhoods? If we do, then there must be holistic approaches to place-based engagement where resident groups can mobilize on their own while operating as intermediaries between government and the public. Ultimately, (re)building relationships between citizens and local governments requires at least three types of integrated public participation:
Supporting Bottom-Up Engagement
We can think of bottom-up assembly in terms of democratic conglomerations that are citizen-initiated decision-making spaces, sometimes driven by democratic or social movements, sometimes they provide basic social services to their community, but mostly strive to problem-solve ‘everyday’ problems. By and large, groups working and assembling from the bottom-up are primarily focused on their own autonomy, though this does not mean they are not in ways connected to external sources of funding, but rather, they’re not formally integrated into bureaucratic public service delivery. Some examples of bottom-up assembly that are prominent today include social enterprises, community land trusts, and residents/neighborhood associations. One strength of bottom-up assembling is organic growth within place-based conglomerations, which means that these groups are inclined and motivated to invent their own spaces for collaboration on addressing pressing local issues.
Embedding Community Intermediaries Within Government
We can think of spaces for collaborative decision-making, as hybrid forms of institutional-community governance. The in-between space that threads between the neighborhood and local government level involves mixtures of street level bureaucracy, residents and local service providers that are focused on social inclusion and community development from asset-based and place-based approaches. Often, these spaces consist of top-down and bottom-up leadership with some sort of funding to elevate collective wellbeing. Some examples of these democratic processes include planning boards within borough systems, planning tables within neighborhood improvement areas, participatory budgeting, and anchor institution networks that facilitate and broker community wealth building and social procurement.
Connecting People Across Geography
Lastly, neighborhood governance requires building connections across geographical areas. This will involve different sorts of community-driven and institutionally coordinated structures that augment civic capacity and coalition building efforts. Connecting people across communities involves different forms and functions of democratic activity, geographical bridge-building, and decision-making where the public can deliberate and inform courses for action. The geographical emphasis aims to renovate existing political structures or establish new types of civic opportunities with a focus on bring people across distance together, including community councils, federations of residents/neighborhood associations, citizens’ assemblies selected by civic lottery. In this way, there is a concerted effort toward city-wide public engagement.
Ultimately, strengthening neighborhood governance must be comprehensive in its approach to nurturing purely bottom-up participation, intermediary relationships between government and communities, and geographical networks that allow from overlapping and self-directed work. In this way, there is a concerted effort that strives to build, connect, and augment civic action, not only within the state but within spaces that people are already mobilized.
Nick Vlahos is the Deputy Director of the Center for Democracy Innovation at the National Civic League.