Against the background of this year’s volatile presidential election, it has become commonplace to despair about the health of American democracy. A recent Pew survey found that trust in government remains at historic lows. Only 19 percent of Americans say they can trust the government always or most of the time, and 60 percent believe government needs “major reform.”
That same survey, though, shows that the public can better trust itself. A majority (55 percent) of those surveyed agreed that “ordinary Americans” would do a better job of solving national problems than elected officials. Is that sentiment another jab at government dysfunction or could it reflect an abiding faith in the wisdom and capacity of the general public?
Why more participation might beget more participation
Recently, a wave of democratic reforms that have tried to draw the public back into public life. These community-driven interventions connect to — but extend beyond — local and state government. Several of these innovations promise to engage traditionally marginalized people if they can be nurtured and scaled.
What are some examples?
There’s a process in Oregon called the Citizens’ Initiative Review. For the past three election cycles, Oregonians have turned to voting guides written not by corporations or special interests but by people like themselves.
Since its establishment by the state’s bipartisan legislature in 2009, the review has convened six representative random samples of citizens for multi-day deliberations on state ballot measures. Each panel interrogates advocates, opponents and background witnesses and then writes a one-page analysis of the ballot measure they studied. That page then goes into the official Voters’ Pamphlet, which the secretary of state mails to every registered voter.
Research funded by the National Science Foundation has shown encouraging results. A majority of Oregon voters are now familiar with the reviews, and survey experiments have shown that reading the statements makes for a better informed — and more reflective — electorate on issues as varied as GMO labeling and sentencing reform. What makes the review’s voting guides effective is the fact that citizens give considerable credence to information curated by fellow citizens.
The review also has rebuilt a measure of trust: Statewide surveys show that Oregonians who learned about their state government creating the CIR are now more confident that their government will respond to public concerns. This complements studies showing even larger impacts on the civic attitudes of those who take part in meaningful deliberation on public controversies. It also echoes the finding that jurors often experience renewed confidence in judges, juries and the legal system.
So this is just in Oregon?
Actually, no. This review process has already spread beyond Greater Portlandia. Legislation to establish a similar process has been introduced in Washington and Massachusetts, and pilot reviews have been conducted in Arizona and Colorado.
Okay. But beyond initiative reviews?
There are a variety of civic experiments to engage everyday people in decision making. Take for example a process known as participatory budgeting. This is a process through which a community’s residents identify its needs, work directly with government officials to craft viable budget proposals and then put these projects up for a vote. Elected officials, in turn, implement the projects, although the people still guide and give input throughout the process.
To glimpse the likely impact of participatory budgeting in the United States, one can look to Brazil, where it first began in 1989. After 25 years, the evidence shows that participatory budgeting has empowered citizens and improved governance in tangible ways, such as increased municipal spending on sanitation and health that has decreased infant mortality rates.
But that’s Brazil…
Yes, but, as the experience of Flint, Mich., shows, such basic infrastructural accomplishments can’t be taken for granted even in the United States. And participatory budgeting shows signs of growth in the United States, with support from the White House to use HUD’s Community Development Block Grants for the process. For 2015-2016, roughly $50 million in public funds will be allocated through participatory budgeting in the United States. During the 2015 project, $32 million was allocated through this process via the New York City Council where roughly 51,000 people participated.
Sounds great. What could go wrong?
Well, there are, of course, limits to the extent to which self-governance can fix government. As we mentioned, it could be that the belief in ordinary Americans over elected officials is just another indicator of governmental dysfunction. It could be that self-governance, or even more participatory government, only works at the local and state, not federal, levels and therefore can’t cure what ails us as a collective. And there are, of course, cases in which more participation didn’t end well for a state’s budget or ballot health, such as in California. There is also the concern about who precisely participates in this process to ensure that it’s not only the “usual suspects.”
Even so, processes like the Citizens’ Initiative Review and participatory budgeting could prove particularly valuable for millennials, who volunteer at a higher rate than other generations, engage in consumer activism and are spearheading civic uses of social media. A majority of this generation believe government has the potential to be a positive force in solving societal problems, and the 2008 election inspired many to become politically engaged. This may be a way to help mature that initial enthusiasm.
John Gastil is a professor of political communication at Pennsylvania State University, where he also directs the McCourtney Institute for Democracy. His most recent books include “Democracy in Motion,” “Democracy in Small Groups” (2nd ed.) and “The Jury and Democracy.”
Hollie Russon Gilman is a postdoctoral research scholar at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and a fellow at New America. Her recent book is “Democracy Reinvented: Participatory Budgeting and Civic Innovation in America.”