The past year did incredible damage to the American people and to American cities — an unprecedented pandemic, economic aftershocks, dangerous disinformation, and racial justice crises collided — with devastating and deadly impacts. Local and state leaders are expected to address bigger challenges than ever before, with fewer resources. It’s tempting in a moment of crisis to revert to the “normal” way of governing, we vote every few years, and our representatives make decisions that are informed by occasional interactions with constituents. But this top-down approach to governing is limited.
For our cities to truly build back better, government must build with, not for, the community. Processes that build policy for constituents instead of with them will always have limited information and face unanticipated challenges. Rolling out solutions without having community buy-in will meet resistance.
To create meaningful improvements fully and equitably, we need new governing models that include everyday Americans, starting at the city level.
One such model, also called co-governance, seeks to create a new process that not just encourages public participation in governing, but empowers residents to be engaged, involved, and, often, act as decision-makers. As a result of this innovative, collaborative model, the process is more inclusive, and often yields better outcomes for the community. These efforts are not just about expanding diversity of representation, but ensuring equitable treatment in building real civic power in decision-making.
For cities overwhelmed by today’s crises, changing processes to be more collaborative can sound unrealistic, unimaginable, and unpredictable. In reality, it’s manageable, efficient — and absolutely necessary. There are models from all around the world that we can learn from:
Participatory budgeting is one such example. Started in Porto Algre, Brazil in the 1980s, government sets aside a portion of its budget, and residents are empowered to decide how to use those funds. The process itself allows for close consultation between government and residents, including residents that are diverse and often marginalized.
Extensive research has shown the success of participatory budgeting on improving communities — Brazil saw decreases in infant mortality and increased spending for healthcare, education, and sanitation. There were also improvements for the democratic system as a whole: decreases in corruption, increased transparency, and more robust civil society organizations.
Today, participatory budgeting has spread to more than 3,000 communities worldwide, including the United States. New York City — home to a robust participatory budgeting program, also saw changes — priorities shifted, with funding focused on schools, streets, and public housing. And, following last summer’s protests for social and racial justice, we saw the creation of the People’s Budget Movements. Created as a reaction to shift money from policing budgets to other community needs, this coalition seeks to engage residents directly in the budget process. Its roots have a similar ethos to participatory budgeting.
With the passage of President Biden’s American Rescue Plan, $350B will be sent to state and local governments. This funding is desperately needed for our communities, and provides a unique opportunity for city government and residents to come together using a creative and tested model, to determine their budget priorities and prioritize local needs.
Co-governance is also about changing how cities more broadly think about the relationship between them and constituents:
Over the last ten years, York, U.K. has taken a new approach to how to work with resident volunteers. Their approach was a big shift from the past, when “active citizenry and volunteering was not strategically connected or mobilized to help address complex problems.” They began by using volunteers to identity causes and solutions to loneliness and social isolation, issues with huge public health consequences. The City trained volunteers in facilitation tools like maps or brainstorming exercises that help identify community knowledge and priorities. Volunteers conducted research and engaged their fellow residents — talking to over 1,000 citizens and 100 other stakeholders. Finally, volunteers worked closely with local partners to design and implement solutions, including pairing young runners with isolated older citizens to act as coaches, acting as motivators for the younger athletes. Ultimately, through this intensive effort, residents in the program reported feeling less lonely, more confident, and experiencing improved well-being.
Both in Brazil and York, residents were brought into new processes to not only improve them, but to help design and implement real solutions. They were a part of the process of governing, filling a gap in understanding by the government.
And while these are just two examples that demonstrate models of co-governance, there are so many other ways to not just engage, but empower residents in the process of governing. Whether it is through opening data as the Taiwanese Digital Minister Audrey Tang has done with COVID-19 mask data, creating Innovation Labs to encourage residents to build and care for public spaces in Bologna, Italy, or even crowdsourcing ideas for drafting a new constitution in Mexico City, Mexico.
These crises are difficult to solve and, at least in part, are not new. They are symptoms of the structural inequities that have long been a part of our society — racism, inequality, distrust of government. And, because these are structural problems, they need a structural solution. To be sure, none of these examples solved all of the issues we see in our society today. No one example, no one civic engagement effort is a panacea. But, these co-governance models offer lessons for city governments to consider.
As we seek to rebuild and recover, cities must do the hard work of engaging and empowering residents to establish deeper, more meaningful engagement between government and residents to not only strengthen our communities, but could also to help strengthen our democracy.
Dr. Hollie Russon Gilman is a Senior Fellow at New America's Political Reform Program and an Affiliate Fellow at Harvard's Ash Center. She is the author of Democracy Reinvented: Participatory Budgeting and Civic Innovation in America and most recently co-author of Civic Power: Rebuilding American Democracy in an Era of Crisis. She served as Open Government and Innovation Advisor in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Rebecca Rosen works as an independent consultant advising, researching, and building programs for social-impact driven organizations across sectors. She previously served as a political appointee in the Obama Administration at the White House, U.S. Trade Representative Office, and the U.S. Department of State.
Elena Souris is a policy analyst in New America's Political Reform program and a McCloy Fellow on Global Trends with the American Council on Germany.