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The 20 Rules of Slow Democracy

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As millions of people head to the polls today to cast their vote, we got to thinking about the idea of democracy and how we need it now more than ever before. But what does democracy look like now and do we need to rethink it?

Reconnecting with the sources of decisions that affect us, and with the processes of democracy itself, is at the heart of 21st-century sustainable communities. And slow democracy could be the solution. Just as slow food encourages chefs and eaters to become more intimately involved with the production of local food, slow democracy encourages us to govern ourselves locally with processes that are inclusive, deliberative, and citizen powered.

Below is a list of the “rules” or general guidelines or how slow democracy can take shape in your community.

The following is an excerpt from Slow Democracy by Susan Clark and Woden Teachout. It has been adapted for the web.


We can’t recommend one perfect tool, technique, or “best recipe” for slow democracy. There isn’t one, any more than there is one best recipe for bread. Every community is unique, and local ingredients differ. However, we can offer some general guidelines and encourage you to explore on your own. Here are twenty reminders that can help make slow democracy work in your community:

  1. Start with the assumption that local government is a “we,” not a “they.” The root word of democracy, demos, means “the people.” Your local government is yours to support, assist, or, if necessary, repair. We’re all in this together.
  2. Avoid “drive-through” democracy. An inclusive, deliberative process takes time to prepare and to carry out—as it should, if it wields power. If you’re a leader, leave time for preparation and outreach. If you’re a citizen, expect well-run democratic processes to take time.
  3. Make strange bedfellows. The more inclusive and diverse your process, the more durable the decisions will be. Keeping in mind the lessons of cultural cognition, remember to frame for inclusion and consider how you’ll meet the goals of various cultural worldviews. Some key reminders:
  • Include expertise and sound information.
  • Show how your process will end in clarified choices or even consensus.
  • Allow and honor dissent, and if necessary create a way for people to participate anonymously (for instance, via surveys and some online methods).
  • Celebrate community.

Once you’ve done that, look around and ask yourself: Who’s not here, and how can we welcome them in?

  1. Involvement doesn’t begin with the event. In fact, involvement creates the event. Ideally, people from all interest areas in the community will be involved in every aspect of democratic engagement, from process design and recruiting for events to researching information, making decisions, and implementing of ideas.
  2. Define your purpose, then design your process. Identify and clearly define goals (preferably with a diverse group) before engaging the public in broad-based deliberation. Is this a process of exploration? Conflict transformation? Decision making? Or collaborative action? Choose a process to meet your deliberative goals.
  3. Match the technique to the goals. Don’t make the mistake of becoming enamored with a particular process, then trying to use it to meet goals it was not designed for. Different techniques work for different goals; a good facilitator can help you make the right match.
  4. If you already know the answer, don’t ask the question. In other words: please don’t enlist participation for participation’s sake. Citizens should be included early enough in decision making for them to be able to generate new options.
  5. Some things take a professional. A good facilitator will work with you to define your goals and create a meeting plan to meet those goals. He or she will also have the skills to ensure that no one dominates the meeting and all views are heard. Facilitation skills are particularly important if the gathering will be especially large or divisive.
  6. Develop local abilities. In many cases, a facilitator will work with you to train a team of local people to facilitate small-group discussions, so that you have strengthened your community’s capacity to have more, similar events later. This is what happened in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and many other deliberative community events.
  7. Find (or be) a neutral convenor. The convenor of a slow democracy process may—or may not—be the local government itself. If there isn’t sufficient trust, a multiperson steering committee with representatives from the different community sectors or factions can be a great way to go.
  8. Choose rules and then follow them. Take your pick—there are many options, from parliamentary procedure to consensus and beyond—but choose a decision-making process and then abide by it. One of the most typical downfalls of community organizations is the belief that because they are founded on common interest, they can operate like a friendship. Don’t underestimate the value of accountability and record keeping if you want to stay friendly.
  9. Use your power gauge. Who makes the decision? Make sure you, and everyone involved, is clear about the process and their role in it.
  10. Show the roadmap of decision making at every meeting. Where are we now, and where is this meeting in the process? This will help participants pace themselves and understand where involvement is most critical.
  11. Tell the story of power and change. Provide open access to information involved in the process—minutes, lists of attendees, informational materials. But don’t just assume that everyone will follow the issue or the process. Keep people posted, either individually or in public communication, and specifically, show how public participation made a difference in decisions and outcomes. It will all add up to making the process transparent, trustworthy, and empowering.
  12. Open up and let go. Inclusive engagement means giving new participants real responsibilities and sharing power. Otherwise, communities wind up suffering from “STP” syndrome—the Same Ten People doing everything, because new participants did not feel included.
  13. Democracy is a long-term relationship. With every decision, consider the impact that the decision-making process will have on citizen confidence, once the issue of the day has come and gone. Work to create a diverse coalition made up of people who are as dedicated to the democratic process as they are to any one issue—a coalition that can continue to promote democratic engagement in your community.
  14. Make connections. Productively link the outcomes of your efforts to others’ efforts.
  15. Come full circle. Leave time for evaluation. Both among participants and in the broader community, ask how the process is going and how you can do better. Give yourself a chance to learn from your mistakes.
  16. Require a democratic impact statement. Okay, there is no such form, but perhaps there should be. Just as we consider the environmental and economic impacts of all new policies, we should consider their long-term effects on inclusive, deliberative, empowered democracy.
  17. Celebrate your successes, and celebrate your community. After all, as we learned from environmental educators, you have to love a thing before you will work to save it. Take the time to appreciate your community and its decision making. It may be slow, but it’s worth it.

Recommended Reads

There’s No Room for Politeness in Politics

Radical Thinking for 21st-Century Economists

 

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