Keeping Democracy Alive in Cities

Myung J. Lee at the Stanford Social Innovation Review:  “It seems everywhere I go these days, people are talking and writing and podcasting about America’s lack of trust—how people don’t trust government and don’t trust each other. President Trump discourages us from trusting anything, especially the media. Even nonprofit organizations, which comprise the heart of civil society, are not exempt: A recent study found that trust in NGOsdropped by nine percent between 2017 and 2018. This fundamental lack of trust is eroding the shared public space where progress and even governance can happen, putting democracy at risk.

How did we get here? Perhaps it’s because Americans have taken our democratic way of life for granted. Perhaps it’s because people’s individual and collective beliefs are more polarized—and more out in the open—than ever before. Perhaps we’ve stopped believing we can solve problems together.

There are, however, opportunities to rebuild and fortify our sense of trust. This is especially true at the local level, where citizens can engage directly with elected leaders, nonprofit organizations, and each other.

As French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville observed in Democracy in America, “Municipal institutions constitute the strength of free nations. Town meetings are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they bring it within the people’s reach; they teach men how to use and how to enjoy it.” Through town halls and other means, cities are where citizens, elected leaders, and nonprofit organizations can most easily connect and work together to improve their communities.

Research shows that, while trust in government is low everywhere, it is highest in local government. This is likely because people can see that their votes influence issues they care about, and they can directly interact with their mayors and city council members. Unlike with members of Congress, citizens can form real relationships with local leaders through events like “walks with the mayor” and neighborhood cleanups. Some mayors do even more to connect with their constituents. In Detroit, for example, Mayor Michael Duggan meets with residents in their homes to help them solve problems and answer questions in person. Many mayors also join in neighborhood projects. San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, for example, participates in a different community cleanup almost every week. Engaged citizens who participate in these activities are more likely to feel that their participation in democratic society is valuable and effective.

The role of nonprofit and community-based organizations, then, is partly to sustain democracy by being the bridge between city governments and citizens, helping them work together to solve concrete problems. It’s hard and important work. Time and again, this kind of relationship- and trust-building through action creates ripple effects that grow over time.

In my work with Cities of Service, which helps mayors and other city leaders effectively engage their citizens to solve problems, I’ve learned that local government works better when it is open to the ideas and talents of citizens. Citizen collaboration can take many forms, including defining and prioritizing problems, generating solutions, and volunteering time, creativity, and expertise to set positive change in motion. Citizens can leverage their own deep expertise about what’s best for their families and communities to deliver better services and solve public problems….(More)”.