SCOTUS decisions leave little recourse but to try new models of civic engagement

The highly selective recent rulings by the Supreme Court, including to limit the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) ability to regulate carbon emissions of power plants, overturning Roe v. Wade and undermining state gun safety laws, places responsibility on individuals in cities and communities without the governmental tools or federal support they have enjoyed in the past. In deferring to Congress, which has failed to address these issues due to high levels of partisan rancor and political dysfunction; the courts are actually pushing the burden onto communities and individuals to navigate a series of disruptive changes. With congressional gridlock, one result of these decisions is a trickle-down responsibility and burden being placed directly onto communities across the country.

The resulting pressure facing individuals in communities will be immense in the following decades. Billions of dollars are already being spent on protecting schools from gun violence from panic buttons to metal detectors. Organizers are already working to figure out how to bring women across state lines for safe reproductive care. States are exploring emergency state ballot measures to try to keep guns off the streets. 

The question arises: What tools exist beyond Congress for states, cities, communities and local governments to shape federal policy and rise to this moment? How can communities effectively deal with these challenges and ameliorate the damage being done?

We need advocacy at the national level and a multi-generational effort to reform democracy and the legislative and judicial branches.

We also need to reform civic space on the local level to respond to the myriad of divisive issues and new responsibilities placed on local governments. 

Are there ways to mitigate this disaster using not only civic activism to change policy but also civic cooperation to affect outcomes for communities by communities? As these policy demands are placed on individuals, cities will need to try experiments with new models of collaborative governance — models of co-governance which put everyday people in direct contact with city officials and staff.

Collaborative governance — also known as “co-governance” —  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. 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.

Co-governance has been most effective when there is a specific policy dispute where a targeted set of actors from both on-the-ground organizers and those with decision-making power come together. Engagement needs to be well-designed to reach beyond the usual suspects, create clearly defined questions, and produce actionable outcomes which can lead to policy implementation.  An example of this is participatory budgeting — a model for community-driven engagement over budgets that has been recognized by the World Bank and Harvard Innovations Award for democratic engagement being practiced across the United States. It creates a specific opening for communities to make funding decisions by enabling everyday residents to have a say on how a local budget should address community-identified needs such as on education, transportation and safety.

For example, Boston created the city’s first Participatory Budgeting Office and launched the first youth-driven process in the country; a process called “Youth Lead the Change” to empower young people ages 12 to 22 to vote in the city’s budget. It has proven effective at engaging traditionally marginalized voices in the policy process, re-allocating resources to underserved neighborhoods and providing a direct channel to tap hyper-local expertise into the complex process of city budgets. Cities and communities are working to deploy participatory budgeting as one co-governance method.

Co-governance can be applied to a range of pressing policy concerns. For example, on community-driven sensible gun reform, a co-governance model could bring teachers, students, advocates and businesses together to formulate solutions that are responsive to a given community’s history, place and political conditions. It will require a specific policy question where there is a chance for genuine reform and offer a new type of process that is centered on the lived experience of those most affected — including students, teachers, family members and community members in direct dialogue with policymakers. It will require intentional facilitation, design and creating safe spaces for people to thoughtfully disagree but with an eye toward effective community-driven problem-solving. It will require engagement with trusted community intermediaries, which my research has demonstrated are essential for building an inclusive and equitable process community members can trust.

Co-governance is hardly a panacea for the complex governing challenges facing communities across the country. But the recent actions of the Supreme Court have left communities with little recourse but to experiment with new models of civic engagement, advocacy, and community-driven people-centered power.

Hollie Russon Gilman, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at New America and Columbia World Projects and an affiliate fellow at Harvard’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation. She is the co-author of “Civic Power: Rebuilding American Democracy in an Era of Inequality” and served in the Obama administration as the White House open government and innovation adviser.

Tags Civic engagement Government Supreme Court

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