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Public Participation for 21st Century Democracy

The 368-page book, Public Participation for 21st Century Democracywritten by Matt Leighninger and Tina Nabatchi was published May 2015. The book aims to improve public participation infrastructure, the way that citizens are engaged, addressing issues that arise and strengthening the community.

Public.ParticipationPublic Participation for 21st Century Democracy explores the theory and practice of public participation in decision-making and problem-solving. It examines how public participation developed over time to include myriad thick, thin, and conventional opportunities, occurring in both face-to-face meetings and online settings. The book explores the use of participation in various arenas, including education, health, land use, and state and federal government. It offers a practical framework for thinking about how to engage citizens effectively, and clear explanations of participation scenarios, tactics, and designs. Finally, the book provides a sensible approach for reshaping our participation infrastructure to meet the needs of public officials and citizens.

From Chapter One…

The problems we face are daunting, and our capacity to address them is remarkable. Climate change, terrorism, financial instability, and other challenges are indeed formidable, but our power to address them is more advanced than ever before.

The greatest element of our improved problem-solving capacity lies in citizens themselves. We enjoy higher levels of education and communication, and we are more committed than ever to the notion that all people deserve certain inalienable rights. Our ability to understand, use, and improve technology is growing by leaps and bounds: everyone, it seems, is a potential scientist, analyst, or inventor. The power of ordinary people, and the ability of government, civil society, and other institutions to unleash that capacity, is the key to our progress as a civilization.

The reality of rising citizen capacity is not, however, a comfortable fact for public leaders. Trapped in systems designed to protect their expertise from citizen interference, besieged by people who no longer believe their data or respect their authority, and faced with hostile constituents at public events, public officials, managers, and other leaders are understandably skeptical about the virtues, capabilities, and good sense of their fellow men and women.

In turn, citizens are skeptical about virtues, capabilities, and good sense of their public officials. Highly polarized policy debates, the inability of elected leaders to agree on seemingly common-sense measures, and the massive influence of moneyed interests have helped produce the highest levels of citizens distrust in government that we have ever seen.

The official, conventional processes and structures for public participation are almost completely useless for overcoming this divide between citizens and governments; in fact, they seem to be making matters worse. In large part, that is because the infrastructure for participation is inefficient and outdated; it does not recognize citizen capacity and it limits our collective problem-solving potential.

To supplement or circumvent this official participation infrastructure, local leaders have devised a host of new processes, formats, and structures for engaging the public. These include intensive face-to-face deliberations, convenient digital tools, and online networks that add dexterity to the power of face-to-face relationships. Many of these innovations not only satisfy the fundamental needs and goals of citizens, but also demonstrate that potential of public participation for making difficult decisions and solving formidable problems. So far, however, they have been pursued primarily on a temporary, ad hoc basis and have not been incorporated into the way that governments and communities operate.

Public participation can help protect our liberties, ensure justice and equality, and improve our quality of life. It is sometimes characterized as the interaction that makes democracy work- but it might be more accurate to say that public participation is the democracy in our primarily republican political systems. The greatest challenge we now face is how to transform those systems in ways that allow us to tap citizens’ full, democratic, problem-solving potential.

Illuminating that challenge is the purpose of this book. Before we explore the potential of participation (in Chapter 2), we will first examine the new attitudes and capacities people bring to public life. We also describe the existing infrastructure for participation and begin to explore why it typically fails to provide the things that citizens want.

Check out more of the book here on Amazon.

About the Authors

Tina Nabatchi is an associate professor of public administration and international affairs at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University. The author of several book chapters, monographs, research reports, and white papers, her research focuses on citizen participation, collaborative governance, and conflict resolution.

Matt Leighninger is the executive director of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium, an alliance of organizations and leading scholars in the field of deliberation and public participation. With twenty years in the field, he has worked with public engagement efforts in over 100 communities, forty states, and four Canadian provinces.

Resource Link: www.amazon.com/Participation-Century-Democracy-Nonprofit-Management

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