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Can governments be equal partners with the governed?

In 2016, for the first time ever, the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) rated the United States as a “flawed” democracy. According to the report, the score reflects an erosion of confidence in government and public institutions over many years at the federal level. Although this change may be surprising to many Americans, Poland has historically been a flawed democracy by the EIU measures.

Even though national governments like Poland and the US  may be moving toward greater isolation from constituents, many cities are working to strengthen democracy through more meaningful interactions, involving residents in collaborative decision making that goes beyond invitations to town hall meetings.

Civic panels

Gdansk Mayor Pawel Adamowicz led civic rights activism when Poland was still under communist rule, and has been Mayor of Gdansk since 1998. The Mayor believes that residents should be aware of the solutions, costs, and the pros and cons of technical solutions that may be suggested by experts.

I truly believe that democracy should not be limited to making decisions by professionals and technocrats. Throughout the world, we see fewer and fewer people vote or engage in public interest activities. The reason for it may be that they feel they have no real influence on government. However, in a passive society populists skillfully win support. This is dangerous for our future.

Mayor Adamowicz’s dedication to democracy led to the implementation of Gdansk’s Civic Panel, which brings together randomly selected city residents to discuss key questions and vote on particular issues. The first civic panel in 2016 was to determine solutions to flooding caused by climate change. A hilly city lying at sea level, torrential rains often damage infrastructure in Gdansk. The panel recommendations included a ban on clear-cutting, increased education on how to receive assistance after flooding, an operational plan for flood protection with clear divisions of labor, and building and restoring reservoirs. Complete results can be found here.

Although there were initially doubts that residents would be able to understand highly technical issues related to water retention, the panel proved that a dialogue between residents and experts is possible, especially when residents are given access to relevant data. Sharing data improves resident comprehension of city issues, as well as their own decision-making abilities. The civic panel shifts responsibility for decision making on complex issues to those who are affected by the decisions.

Participatory budgeting

Gdansk has also been implementing participatory budgeting since 2013. In 2017, $2.8M USD was dedicated to projects in districts, and $705,000 was allocated to projects at large. Through a seven-month process, residents and City Hall brainstorm projects, develop and vet proposals, and vote. The most popular projects are related to sport, including running paths, bike stations, and sports fields.

This inclusive process of democratic decision making enables the city to engage new groups of residents; in 2017, for the first time, people age 16 and older, and non-permanent residents of Gdansk, such as immigrants and students, may vote. The procedures are transparent: Residents are invited to craft ideas through “Idea Hubs” hosted by City Hall and voting takes place online and around the City. The process enables residents to learn about how decisions are made in City Hall and gives city officials insight into where people would like investments to be made.

Cities in the US have also found success in participatory budgeting exercises in their communities. In Chicago’s tenth ward, Alderwoman Sadlowski Garza is working to engage residents in making meaningful improvements to the community, in which the legacy of the post-industrial economy is still evident. Her efforts have included participatory budgeting, inviting tenth ward residents to vote on projects that were suggested and vetted by volunteer community representatives.

In one week, more than 800 residents showed up to vote on seven proposals for community improvements. The winning projects included:

  • replacing signs welcoming people to the South East Side
  • resurfacing a track used by George Washington High School, Elementary School students, and other community members  
  • resurfacing residential streets
  • building the first dog-friendly area on the South Side at Calumet Park

Although projects like these cannot address all the ward’s issues, they will provide investment that meets the self-identified needs of the ward at large. And there is an intrinsic benefit that will occur when residents see the projects that they voted on actually come to life in their community — a sense that government is listening and responding to the people.

Meaningful, but not equal

Equal partnership between governments and the governed may not be possible. Some governments do not have the political will to share information and invite more widespread, democratic participation. In places like the US and Poland, city leaders may face conflict with national leaders not supportive of open decision making or resource allocation.

But this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for meaningful partnership wherever possible. Honest conversations between government and the governed, especially those that take place in and with communities, with trained facilitators who ensure everyone is heard, that ideas are captured, and this process will result in government taking action, can go a long way to repairing the general distrust and perception of ineffectiveness people assume of government.  


How can your city engage its residents? Contact the Participatory Budgeting Project for more information on how to get started and check out GovEx for guides and more stories about using data and technology to connect with residents. Most importantly, ask your residents about the level of engagement they would like to see.

Does your city have examples of democracy in action? Please share them with us!




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