Many years ago, I attended a neighborhood association meeting in a large Midwestern city. It was a long meeting, as many of these can be. There was a good turnout this particular evening as the residents argued the merits of a city plan to devolve certain responsibilities for small scale services to neighborhoods. The mayor at the time believed this plan was a means of providing citizens an opportunity to engage directly in their own governance as opposed to relying on city administrators or city councilors to act on their behalf. The proposal was open to any neighborhood that wanted to participate, and no neighborhood that opted out would be required to undertake the program.
This particular neighborhood had challenges. It was not where one might expect to find the spirits of Hamilton and Jefferson still wrestling. It was racially split; approximately half were lower income African-American residents, and half lower income Appalachian white residents. The debate went on as the residents engaged each other (quite civilly) on issues of voting rules, representation, and service responsibilities. I feverishly took notes before I suddenly realized what I was witnessing. While the rhetoric may not have been as lofty as our American mythology suggests, these citizens were at the ground level wrestling with the fundamental issues of democracy affecting their day-to-day lives, not unlike the debates of the Founders in 1787. My cynical heart grew two sizes that night.
Interest in citizen involvement, neighborhood empowerment, or civic engagement programs have waxed and waned over the past several decades. This discourse is often traced back to Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. More recently, we have experimented with numerous such programs, particularly with those associated with President Johnson’s War on Poverty and “maximum feasible participation.” Most of those programs are gone, victims of budget cuts, political opposition and unfulfilled overstated goals.
Today, there is tripartite wave of interest in finding a means by which the nation’s cities can spur meaningful participation to reconnect citizens through civic engagement. Progressives seek ways of giving greater voice to those citizens whose voices are not always well heard through traditional representational politics. Private sector interests are exploring opportunities to privatize government services by working directly with neighborhood or other nonprofit organizations. But growing calls for more citizen engagement has come from the field of public administration. Even a 2006 survey of city managers noted that MPA programs should be including training for future public managers on how to integrate citizens into the operations of local governing.
The good news is that there are several experiments that have come and gone that have left us lessons upon which new programs can be tried. A fundamental lesson for meaningful participation is that citizens need actual decision making authority to overcome their costs of participating. That authority will only be meaningful if it includes control over resources. And there’s the rub. Participatory democracy is not an efficient decision making process. It can get quite “messy.”
But this has not deterred cities and citizens in countries around the world from pursing more community level governance. Nations like Italy, Mexico, Israel, and Switzerland have in place systems to integrate grassroots decision making into local governance. And in America, most cities with over 100,000 residents are home to active neighborhood council or association systems. The vast majority of these are formally recognized by their city government.
Such recognition is primarily as a mechanism for disseminating land use and zoning information. But other cities in the US have devolved specific formal governing responsibilities and powers to community groups. Some of these roles have been strong advisory roles such as the neighborhood council system in Los Angeles. Others have been more formal service responsibilities, such as Dayton’s Priority Board system in which residents work directly with city administrators in deciding projects on which to spend CDBG money throughout the community. Other cities have integrated citizens into the provision and production of public safety through community oriented policing programs, neighborhood watch, and citizens on patrol. And still others have used the same model to deputize neighborhood representatives as code enforcement officials adding eyes on the streets to help identify violations.
There is an array of small scale public service responsibilities over which authority might be devolved to those neighborhood or communities that would like to assume provision control. For instance, the neighborhood council might serve as the first line of defense against changes to the land use plan for the community. As part of the system of laws governing cities and states, these councils’ decisions would still be embedded in a system in which appeals were possible to the city level and into the courts. But this change places the community in a very different position relative to planners and developers, who would be more likely to go to these councils seeking partnerships for approval of zoning or other land use changes in the area.
Other possible services that cities and citizens might consider devolving to neighborhood councils could include side street traffic flow and repair, first-line code enforcement ( warning authority as opposed to actual citation authority), programming for smaller neighborhood-level parks and recreation areas, and even community development initiatives. A neighborhood could opt to take as many of these service provision responsibilities (or as few) as they like. Once they accept the responsibility, residents would not deliver the service (i.e., filling potholes or paving streets). Rather, they would participate in neighborhood council meetings with their neighbors and decide what is needed for the community with the available funding provided to them by the city. Such meetings become an opportunity not only for service decision making, but also for community discussions on other matters. While they will likely not increase efficiency in decision making, they may generate other efficiencies and positive spillover effects. For instance, the councils might generate increased social capital in stressed communities, with opportunities for bridging and bonding. Local residents may be willing to engage in service delivery directly (recycling, park maintenance, vacant lot mowing, etc.) and thereby help realize cost savings and responsible utilization of public funds.
Such experiments in democracy have been underway since the founding of the union. The goal is to regenerate citizenship, though the ancillary effects of cost saving and social capital would be positive externalities. But such experiments cannot have zero costs. For such plans to work, there must be real authority and control over resources. Electronic and social media could help keep meeting costs down and participation open, but neighborhood council members would need access to training and would need partners in the city government. Politically, the costs of supporting such participatory efforts are often viewed as a lower priority and are targeted during budgetary downturns. And perhaps most challenging is the realization that such councils may fail or make bad decisions. This happens at the city, state, and federal level, but mistakes at the neighborhood level may not be tenable politically.
Such neighborhood empowerment strategies provide a complementary role in the urban governance structure. City and regional governance is well served by motivated elected city officials and professional public managers addressing large scale issues such as transportation, air quality, economic development, safety and community health. A neighborhood council model would provide the opportunity for residents to join together in a meaningful way to realize their collective vision for their community within their larger urban context. They would have to operate within the existing budget and planning realities of the city. They would be an integral part of those plans. They could help reinvigorate citizenship if neighborhoods could be authorized to experiment and innovate at the grassroots level. But such democratic participation will be messy. And that raises the question: how much democracy can you take?
David Swindell is an associate professor and director of the Ph.D. in Public Policy Program at UNC Charlotte. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org