Strengthening Governance through Public Participation
Whose voices are heard and represented in government? We see more and more evidence that post-elections, policymakers are primarily responsive to wealthy elites and special interests. This trend not only affects the types of policy decisions being made, but it also damages the public trust and legitimacy of governments. The Ash Center is a global leader in understanding the potential and the limits of political participation as a key antidote in the recovery of contemporary democracy.
The Ash Center is home to multiple research and programmatic efforts related to political participation in its many forms, from understanding political parties in Latin America and the Arab Spring in the Middle East to helping to strengthen social movements and local civic engagement. The Center is a hub for scholars, practitioners, and others committed to exploring innovations in participation, like participatory budgeting, and other new models of public engagement, participatory democracy, participatory institutions, transparency and open data efforts, and both deliberative and direct democracy systems.
Fung co-founded Participedia, which identifies and studies hundreds of experiments in new forms of participatory politics and governance in almost every country in the world—reflecting a new global phenomenon in which citizens most countries are increasingly demanding greater involvement in collective decisions.
The Ash Center has long fostered public participation in creative solutions to civic problems through our Innovations in Government program. Throughout its 30-year history, the Innovation program has recognized government-led innovations that enhance public engagement and participation, such as Hampton, Virginia’s Youth Civic Engagement Program (a comprehensive youth engagement strategy that gives young people authority to be equal players in city government decisions) or the US General Service Administration’s Challenge.gov program (the federal government’s online challenge and prize competition portal which allows the government to crowdsource solutions to public problems). Deepening our commitment, the Ash Center recently offered its first Roy and Lila Ash Innovation Award for Public Engagement in Government. Participatory Budgeting in New York City - the largest and fastest-growing participatory budgeting process in the United States —was the inaugural award winner.
The Ash Center’s work with practitioners is deeply informed by, and in turn informs, the research and scholarship of its faculty—all of whom are among the world’s most notable scholars on democratic participation, democratic deliberation, political participations, and other areas of interest. Archon Fung’s work on policies, practices, and institutional designs that deepen the quality of democratic governance is world-renowned, as is the work of Jenny Mansbridge on representation, democratic deliberation, and everyday activism. Quinton Mayne’s award-winning research on government legitimacy bridges much of this work on participation with our work on cities.
Tarek Masoud’s work on the Arab Spring and other political developments in the Middle East and Indonesia is at the core of our “Democracy in Hard Places” research. The Ash Center's Democracy in Hard Places research initiative goes beyond current theory on the empirical evidence of democracy's value to look at the structural relationships in democratic practices in the developed and developing world. By leveraging research expertise from across the Ash Center, Democracy in Hard Places seeks to understand why democratic institutions thrive in some countries while failing in others.
The Center’s work on public participation also extends to Latin America and Africa. Candelaria Garay studies democratic politics, policymaking, redistribution, and welfare in Latin America, while Ryan Sheely studies direct citizen participation in the delivery of public goods and services in Africa, while In March 2015, Sheely published an important paper in World Development that finds that while mobilization can have a large and significant effect on citizen participation, it does not necessarily lead to increased adoption of the projects requested by citizens. Archon Fung is leading the Transparency for Development research project, a five-year, multi-country study examining the use of community scorecards to improve maternal and neonatal health (MNH) in Indonesia and Tanzania.
The Ash Center is has long committed to strengthening the public discourse on some of the most persistent social and public policy problems. This commitment culminated in the Center’s recent Challenges to Democracy public dialogue series, organized in commemoration of our 10th anniversary, which featured many events centered on themes of participation and engagement in the political process. Events explored questions such as whether new restrictions on voting rights spell the end of longstanding efforts to expand the right to vote? How far should we extend civil and political rights to immigrants, whether they are here with or without authorization, and what responsibilities should we expect in return? And is digital technology increasing political participation and engagement, or consolidating the power of elite political interests?
A highlight of the Ash Center's Challenges to Democracy public dialogue series was our #Hack4Congress series of hackathons in Cambridge, San Francisco, and Washington, DC. The events brought together students, political scientists, technologists, designers, lawyers, and lawmakers to encourage the development of much-needed tech platforms to improve lawmaking, deliberation, and representation in legislatures. The Center also hosted #Tech4Democracy Showcase and Challenge, which brought students, civic tech startups, entrepreneurs, and others with a connection to greater Boston to showcase their idea for a new app, web platform, policy, or program that leverages technology to improve the quality of democratic governance at the Kennedy School.