PACE–“The New Laboratories of Democracy: How Local Government is Reinventing Civic Engagement”

Local Governments Leading the Way in Developing New Forms of Civic Engagement

August 28, 2009

PACE , Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement and the National Civic League have teamed up to publish a special issue of the National Civic Review (NCR) on cutting edge forms of dialog, deliberation and public decision-making at the local government level.

Currently in its 98th year of publication, NCR is one of the nation’s oldest and most prestigious journals of civic affairs. Its audience includes mayors, city managers, community activists, academics and leaders within the nonprofit sector.

Released this week, “The New Laboratories of Democracy: How Local Government is Reinventing Civic Engagement” features essays, interviews, and case studies on cutting edge practices by villages, towns, cities and counties in the field of public participation and how nonprofits and foundations are aiding and assisting those efforts.

“Publication of the special NCR issue is particularly timely,” noted PACE Executive Director Christopher T. Gates. “The raucous debate over health care reform is a reminder of how difficult it is to deliberate on complex public policy issues in an environment of distrust and polarization, a lesson many local officials learned in the early 1990s when budgets were tightening and public skepticism about the role of government was growing.”

Not long ago, the main vehicle for local participation was the public hearing, an often frustrating and unsatisfactory means of engaging the community. “That began to change about 15 years ago,” added Gates, “when public managers and elected officials started looking for new and better forms of engagement so they could move forward on tough local challenges. The many examples of community success suggest that local government has become an important source of innovation and activity.”

What factors led to this flurry of experimentation? What forms did these new methods take? What have we learned about these new approaches? How do public officials ensure these new ways of doing civic engagement avoid the old trap of offering only the “illusion of inclusion?” And how will technology change the way citizens come together to solve problems?

These are a few of the questions raised and explored in a white paper issued by PACE in May. This special NCR issue includes examples, insights and recommendations contained in the earlier report as well as essays by leaders of public sector associations such as the International City/County Management Association and the National League of Cities, on-the-ground reports from practitioners and advocates of civic engagement who work in communities, and “lessons learned” from local government managers who work with neighborhood groups and public forums.

“We are very excited to publish this special issue with PACE,” says Gloria Rubio-Cortés, President of the National Civic League. “It explores from a number of new angles questions that are right at the center of our mission: how do we make democracy more inclusive and how do we tap the under-used resource of public knowledge and common wisdom.”

To receive a complimentary print edition of this issue (NCR 98:2), contact Kristin Seavey,

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