Home Political science Evaluating Democratic Innovations: Curing the Democratic Malaise?
Community organizing, neighbourhood development and decentralized planning: sectoral co-governance
Other co-governance innovations take place in specific policy sectors, from schooling and housing, to policing and economic development. It therefore offers coordination platforms between lay citizens and public functionaries in defining common problems, identifying priorities and evaluating results.
Since 1995, the Chicago Police Department has held monthly community meetings in 285 neighbourhood beats across the city (Fung 2004). In these beat meetings, police officers and local citizens discuss how to improve public safety in the neighbourhood. Following a problem-solving method, the neighbourhood meetings define priorities and strategies for action and review progress. Successful strategies often involve coordinated action by local citizens and police officers. Community policing is particularly interesting, as there is a strong incentive for disadvantaged citizens to attend. Evidence shows that this innovation reverses the typical participation bias - citizens from within poor and less well-educated neighbourhoods (which suffer from higher levels of crime) turn out at higher rates.
The Chicago participatory reform was implemented in order to solve the problems created by an increasingly inefficient Weberian-type bureaucracy. Emanating from the Chicago Police Department’s own reflections, as well as from progressive community organizations, the participatory reform of the city’s policing was also supported by the Mayor, who saw in it a way to demonstrate the administration’s innovative spirit to fight crime. Participatory democracy appeared as a way to modernize public services by including citizens in the decision-making process. Following a German union motto, it could be said: ‘Making public services efficient to avoid privatizing them.’ Transparency and efficiency seems indeed to result from such participatory procedures, as will be seen later on.
The US also has a great deal of experience of participatory procedures at the neighbourhood level. Many large cities have, for instance, created neighbourhood councils (Berry et al. 1993). While most of them are consultative, some experiments are more empowered, allowing the co-governance of neighbourhood development plans. The Minneapolis Neighborhood Revitalization Program (NRP) has, for example, been granted US$400 million, to be spent over twenty years, to develop local project plans (Fagotto and Fung 2006). In the first part of the process, neighbourhood associations gather information about the concerns and priorities of residents (through surveys, door-to-door and focus groups, and discussions during neighbourhood meetings). These priorities then coalesce into a neighbourhood action plan that details neighbourhood needs and lists concrete actions to achieve these objectives. The plan must finally be ratified in a general assembly involving the whole neighbourhood, and obtain approval from Minneapolis City Council. Despite low participation, and an overwhelming representation of homeowners, this innovation had a substantial redistributive impact, as will be seen later on.
In a completely different context, the decentralized planning process in Kerala, India, created highly empowered institutions that gathered an impressive number of lay citizens. When the Left Democratic Front returned to power in Kerala in 1996, the State government rapidly launched the ‘People’s Campaign for Decentralized Planning’. It first of all consisted of administrative decentralization, with local government receiving new powers and being brought under the authority of local elected bodies. Second, fiscal decentralization took place, 40 per cent of all developmental expenditures being allocated to the Local Self-Governing Institutions. Third, there has been a decentralization of political power, elected local representatives now having the possibility to define, finance and implement development plans and projects (Isaac and Heller 2003). These plans take shape through a multi-stage participatory process of iterated deliberation, between elected representatives, government officials, activists and lay citizens. In keeping with the principle of subsidiarity it is supposed to embody, the process begins in ward-level assemblies, open to all volunteers, in which participants discuss collective problems and identify development priorities. Projects are progressively refined by task forces meeting regularly in development seminars. The aim is to prepare detailed project proposals, including a definition of the objectives, criteria for beneficiaries or areas, a time frame, an identification of funding sources, a review of the social and environmental impact, and so on. Projects are then submitted to the municipal councils that set priorities and budgets for local plans. A comprehensive local development plan is thus constructed, consisting of hundreds of projects, addressing a variety of local needs and problems.
Whilst being a top-down decentralizing movement initiated by elected representatives, the Kerala People’s campaign is also the product of twenty- five years of local experimentation by NGOs. The campaign stemmed from a collective reflection on the limitations of the traditional command-control model of development, relying a lot on political parties’ motivations. Reform appeared necessary at the time, as the increased climate of sectarian and partisan divisions had become an obstacle to development. The Peoples’ campaign, therefore, replaced the conventional system of vertical accountability to political parties and bureaucracies, with horizontal forms of cooperation between different sets of actors.
Sectoral co-governance appears in policy areas that are facing either inefficiencies or patronage problems. The participation of the public can, therefore, appear as a way to modernize public services, making them more efficient through a problem-solving process. It also increases the transparency of public decision making, the number of people having an eye on the process, rendering corruption and clientelism almost impossible. In the end, most of these reforms have stemmed from a positive cooperation between enlightened political elites willing to launch ambitious democratic reforms, allowing a better allocation of public resources, and active civil society organizations that pushed for greater empowerment and autonomy from local governments. These democratic innovations have shown, as will now be seen, a great deal of popularity, attracting high numbers of participants, especially among the most deprived factions of society.
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