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Can 2020 Teach Us How to Make Democracy Work Better?

November 2, 2020

Beneath the endless and alarming headlines about divisive politics, racial injustice, surges of COVID-19, and a faltering economy, the crises and conflicts of 2020 have a deeper meaning. They illustrate the flaws, limitations, and outdated components of democracy in our country. Our system is not producing the public trust, coordinated action, or common ground necessary to address these crises and effectively serve the American people. But the silver lining is that upheaval can create openings for democratic innovation—for practices and reforms that make democracy more productive, equitable, and broadly supported. The trick is seeing those openings and having the tools to do something about them.

At Public Agenda, we have approached the challenges of 2020 in several ways: creating new initiatives that help people respond to crises; researching and explaining the attitudes of Americans on major policy issues and on new democratic practices and reforms; and tracking what can be learned from democratic innovations both here and abroad. As 2020 comes to a close—and with a major election upon us—we may not have all the answers, but we need to make sure that we are asking the right questions. 

COVID-19: How can we spread information and resources at scale?

One of the biggest challenges to democracy in 2020 has been the COVID-19 pandemic. The attempts to contain the virus showed the need for better engagement—at the beginning, people lacked good information about the virus and how to deal with it, and then it became clear that the low levels of coordination and trust between citizens and government were preventing a unified response. Back in May our Hidden Common Ground research found substantial agreement among Americans about the severity of the threat and their willingness to make sacrifices to address it. But the case numbers and death toll continue to rise while some leaders have politicized the pandemic response. 

Early on in the pandemic, our colleagues at the Pennsylvania Health Access Network (PHAN) showed the power of online engagement to help people deal with the crisis. (PHAN and Public Agenda are partners in Community Voices for Health, an initiative supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to strengthen the infrastructure for engagement in health in six states.) PHAN has reached thousands of people through Facebook Live sessions, online town halls, and small-group conversations on Zoom. Public Agenda has held webinars to spread these lessons to other communities. 

Meanwhile, Public Agenda launched Text Talk Engage to Fight COVID-19, a strategy that combines texting-enabled engagement with an online platform called Polis that helps large numbers of people to find common ground on policy questions. 

Organizing “serious games” is another tactic we have found effective at spreading information and encouraging interaction to respond effectively to unforeseen disasters. We have used games to help people in the neighborhoods surrounding Jamaica Bay in New York City to learn about and plan for environmental resilience, in order to deal with threats like Hurricane Sandy. Games can help spread information and interaction to address COVID-19 as well as other threats. 

Racial Injustice, Policing, and Improving Community Safety: How can we create systems that strengthen accountability and voice?

Beginning in the spring, the United States experienced an intensified reckoning with racial injustice, which illuminated another significant engagement and democratic challenge. Many people feel that police departments and other public institutions are no longer accountable to the public: our Hidden Common Ground research in June found that most Americans want at least some change to policing or law enforcement, including 55 percent who want either major change or to redesign it completely. Yet our research also found that Americans are divided over whether police budgets should be decreased or increased. Budgeting may be too simple a lens for envisioning police reform: In many instances these institutions are not being transparent or providing the people they serve with a meaningful say on the important decisions that govern policing. In fact, there is a long history of discrimination and violence within American institutions that has never been fully reconciled, adding fuel to the fire. To move toward some semblance of recovery, it is clear that communities need practical steps to make systems more participatory, powerful, and equitable, and we need ways to measure progress and engagement between these institutions and the community.     

While police departments may be the most obvious examples of the growing gulf between people and their institutions, they are hardly the only ones: Americans’ trust in government, at every level, has been declining steadily for decades. As our Yankelovich Democracy Monitor research shows, four in ten Americans agree that “the design and structure of our nation’s government need significant change no matter whom we elect to represent us.” Half feel that racism makes it difficult for some people to participate in civic and political life. But our same research from the Yankelovich Democracy Monitor also says that Americans are enthusiastic about trying new things and implementing new democratic practices and reforms, showing a thirst for democratic innovation.

Beyond just institutions themselves, people need opportunities to engage at every level. When engagement is working well in a community, institutions rely on healthy, robust civic associations (such as neighborhood associations, block clubs, and parent-teacher associations), community organizers, other grassroots leaders, welcoming public spaces like libraries and parks, and active local online networks. This is all part of what makes up “civic infrastructure,” and communities that are engaged with one another in these ways tend to engage with their institutions more effectively.

In most cases, the first step is to take stock of this civic infrastructure, including the history of engagement efforts, the capacity of institutions to engage, the strength of social networks, big-picture demographic and other trends, and the programs and initiatives that seem successful at engaging residents. As part of Community Voices for Health, Public Agenda conducted a number of “engagement scans” to help people survey their systems for engagement. This kind of research can help local leaders identify key allies, understand whose voices are not being heard, avoid mistakes in their messaging, and build on what’s working already.

Finally, it is hard to improve the relationship between people and institutions when we lack good ways to measure the quality of engagement. To address this need we created the Civic Engagement Scorecard. Similar to rating tools such as Yelp, TripAdvisor and RateMyProfessor, the Scorecard lets the public provide input about different kinds of meetings, processes, town halls, festivals and online activities. It also allows users to provide feedback about how engagement is working overall – do they feel informed and connected, do they have a meaningful say in decisions, and is their volunteerism supported and honored?

After the election, can we build the democracy we want?

At times, especially given our current political climate, well-functioning democracy may seem like a high-minded luxury. But as we have seen in the crises of 2020, democratic systems that aren’t working well have difficulty solving public problems. The opposite is also true: well-functioning systems can have a direct positive impact on health, trust and overall well-being. This is the work that lies ahead of us after this next election, and despite all our problems, there are many reasons to think we can do it. 

In all our work, from New Yorkers making their neighborhoods more resilient to New Mexicans grappling with the social determinants of health, we see the willingness of people to collaborate, solve problems, and make decisions together. 

As 2020 comes to a close and we approach a momentous election, we should be looking for the lessons and silver linings in the challenges we have experienced. We need democratic practices and reforms that can scale engagement more effectively, rebuild the relationships between citizens and institutions, and help solve public problems. This is the work that can help us move forward by bringing us together, addressing our shared frustrations with the system, and creating productive solutions that will help us build a better future. 

 

Matt Quixada
Author

Matt Leighninger and Quixada Moore-Vissing

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