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Tuesday, June 6, 2023


Building Public Trust Through Collaborative Governance With Communities and Civil Society

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For a more equitable, inclusive, multiracial, and multi-ethnic democracy, we must invest substantive, resourced, and long-term decision-making power in the public.

Overlapping silhouettes of Hands in a water color texture.
(Illustration by iStock/smartboy10)

At the national level, the connection between the public and government seems broken. Trust in government has been declining for decades, and in the most recent Edelman Trust Barometer survey, only 43 percent of Americans say they trust their government “to do what is right,” 10 percentage points lower than it was only five years ago. More than 60 percent of US voters think the country is on “the wrong track,” even at a moment of near full employment.

The story reflected in polls is bleak at the national level, but in our cities and towns, we find different story: a rich vein of experimentation with more collaborative forms of public engagement, aimed at allowing people outside and inside of government to work together in designing policy. This is collaborative governance—also known as “co-governance”—and it seeks to disrupt the rigid dichotomy between those “in power” and those “outside of power.” A new name for something that has been emerging in practice over several decades, collaborative governance shifts power and builds trust by enabling government officials and advocates to see each other as collaborators with unique capacities and perspectives that support the other’s interests and positions.

Examples range from participatory budgeting—such as the recently approved ballot initiative in Boston which will help distribute budgetary power and give residents a greater say in their city’s spending—to the creation of a permanent Citizens’ Assembly in Paris, allowing Parisians to “truly participate in the public policies of the capital city.” These, alongside other experiments, were recently profiled in a recent report by New America’s Political Reform Program and in a special issue of The Forge. But although co-governance is a multifaceted and wide-ranging concept, the idea at its core is simple: to move public participation up Sherry Arnstein’s “Ladder of Citizen Participation,” raising the public through increasing levels of sustainable engagement. This sets co-governance apart from other forms of more temporary or issue-specific forms of democratic decision-making: ideally, co-governance creates lasting structures and more flexible relationships, ultimately helping create a positive feedback loop generating trust between residents and decision makers. This does not mean, of course, that decision-making is free of contestation or that immediate wins are always achieved, but rather that there are more nimble forms of power shifting and channels for deepening communication that develop for residents over time.

Here are three key principles that are integral to co-governance:

1. Co-governance grants people an authentic seat at the table and imbues the public with actual decision-making power.

Co-governance seeks to create mechanisms by which public input leads to actual changes. However, this requires moving beyond simply passive community “listening sessions” or town halls in which public officials hear the public’s input without any associated or dedicated commitment to implement any of the public’s recommendations. Those in power cannot view community engagement as simply a box they must check; instead of window dressing public participation, they must work on mechanisms for genuine participatory control by residents.

An illustrative example of deep and ongoing engagement can be seen in the efforts to reform public safety in Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS), led by Leaders Igniting Transformation (LIT), founded and run by young Black and Brown people directly impacted by policies that harm their communities. In order to deeply engage with school board candidates in the lead-up to the 2019 MPS school board election, LIT hosted town halls, conducted private interviews with candidates, and published questionnaire responses, following up by engaging all of the school board members through regular meetings and consistent attendance at public meetings and forums. Before the outreach, LIT only had support from one board member, but through creating authentic and ongoing channels for engagement and decision making, LIT ultimately received unanimous support for their vision of school safety from all of the newly elected board members. These school board members aligned with LIT’s vision and ultimately voted to increase resources for mental health, voted against metal detectors, and voted to end suspensions in fifth grade and below. Even when there was pushback, youth leaders effectively communicated their experiences and helped educate board members about the realities of how police in schools harm students, particularly youth of color, demonstrating the power of persistence and having people with lived experience were at the heart of advocating for change.

2. Co-governance not only grants the public decision-making power but follows through on allocating resources.

An authentic reallocation of power often means reallocating resources toward the community. Participatory budgeting is an excellent example, in which citizens are given both decision-making power and budgetary power to put financial resources toward the projects they deem worthy of investment. In New York City’s participatory budgeting (PBNYC), for example, residents have had real decision-making power over $35 million in annual capital funding to put towards physical infrastructure projects that benefit the public. The process includes five stages: Idea Collection and Volunteer Recruitment, Proposal Development, GOTV and Vote Week, and Evaluation and Planning. Throughout the process, residents propose and vote on ideas, including improvements to local schools, parks, libraries, public spaces, public housing, streets, and other projects that would benefit their local community.

Participatory budgeting increases civic engagement for those who are often left out of decision-making; Harvard’s Ash Center selected NYC for a “Innovations in American Government” award, noting that, of those who participated in PBNYC, 23 percent had a barrier to voting in regular elections, over a quarter were born outside of the US, nearly half earned under $50,000 a year, and the majority of participants identified as people of color. Last year, New York City’s Civic Engagement Unit launched a youth participatory budgeting project. By using the online platform Decidem, young people aged 9 through 24 were able to propose and vote on projects, and collectively decide how to allocate $100,000 across the city. The five winning projects included mentoring programs, a training program for young musicians, a high school roof garden, and a recycling program across Brooklyn, Queens, and The Bronx.

Another instructive case of reallocation occurred in historically Black neighborhoods in Gainesville, Florida. In soliciting community feedback for the city’s comprehensive plan, Commissioner Johnson decided to allocate a budget for “community cultivators.” And instead of hiring an external consulting firm to gauge residents’ needs in development decisions, they hired local residents and trusted community members themselves to collect information on community needs and perspectives to feed into the comprehensive plan. According to Johnson, they “reallocated resources from the consulting companies and then put that money directly back into the hands of the communities, while at the same time being able to get the information we needed to inform our policy decisions.” Johnson correctly emphasizes that those who are closest to the problem are often best placed to help design solutions.

3. Co-governance promotes a long-term vision, building momentum and relationships that outlast one-time policy wins.

By building relationships that can outlast a specific issue, co-governance represents an ongoing democratic process rather than a one-off initiative. It can also highlight the value of “losing forward” in service of a longer-term vision. For example, when voters in Colorado passed a ballot measure to create statewide paid family and medical leave in November 2020, it was the result of years of collaborative organizing and work across many different groups of democratic actors. But this only happened after years of the bill failing to pass in the legislature. Advocates turned to a ballot initiative, ultimately getting Proposition 118 passed through a combination of re-strategization, outreach to the public, and effective coordination between legislators and advocates. And even though legislative efforts on paid leave repeatedly stalled, each time the coalition grew, garnering more media attention and further fine-tuning details of the policy for their next advocacy effort. This process resulted in a better policy and set the stage to build a movement that would outlast a one-time policy win.

In brief, co-governance creates positive feedback loops, which encourage and foster genuine respect and a shared understanding of power between government and civil society. Even in cases where policy wins aren’t immediate, the relationships established can be impactful in the long run. In Colorado, the boundaries between those inside and outside government shifted, with organizers and activists running for elected office. Colorado Senator Faith Winter, for example, was an organizer and activist before seeking elected office, and her transition has created opportunities for deepening relationships between those inside and outside the halls of government. She also notes how, through collaborative governance, the relationships built among allies on paid leave outlasted that specific initiative and many of the coalition partners that worked together on paid leave subsequently worked together on initiatives to update workplace harassment standards, create equal pay standards, and expand access to affordable housing. For instance, when Senator Winter ran the Power Act to protect workers’ rights in 2021, she was joined in the effort by many of the advocates she had worked with on paid leave. According to Senator Winter, “when you build power and when you build a movement, it’s not about a singular issue. It was fantastic that we won on paid family medical leave. And now we have relationships. Now we have a coalition. Now we have an ecosystem of creating change.”

Tools for the Future

Co-governance is only one of many tools towards building a more inclusive form of government which creates feedback loops for civic power building. But at a time when our political institutions are facing a crisis of trust, co-governance that invests decision-making power in the public can take us a step forward towards a more equitable, inclusive, multiracial, and multiethnic democracy in the 21st century. Ultimately, the goal is not simply better policies but creating the conditions for long-term capacity building for communities and public servants to work together. This will not only build a more lasting and deepened democracy, but it will instill the kind of trust we’re so sorely lacking: one where residents have the agency and dignity to engage in policy decisions on a more daily basis, not just during elections or crises.

Hollie Russon Gilman is a Political Reform program fellow at New America and an Affiliate Democracy Fellow at Harvard’s Ash Center. Her most recent co-authored book is Civic Power: Rebuilding American Democracy in an Era of Crisis.

Mark Schmitt is the director of the Political Reform program at New America. A prominent writer on politics and public policy with experience in government, philanthropy, and journalism, Schmitt is an expert on political reform, budget and tax policy, and US social policy.

Hollie Russon Gilman and Mark Schmitt
Hollie Russon Gilman and Mark Schmitt
Hollie Russon Gilman is a Political Reform program fellow at New America and an Affiliate Democracy Fellow at Harvard’s Ash Center. Her most recent co-authored book is Civic Power: Rebuilding American Democracy in an Era of Crisis. Mark Schmitt is the director of the Political Reform program at New America. A prominent writer on politics and public policy with experience in government, philanthropy, and journalism, Schmitt is an expert on political reform, budget and tax policy, and US social policy.
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