By Tim Glynn-Burke, Associate Director of Democratic Governance and Student Programs
In 2008, the Ash Center reenvisioned its Democratic Governance Program as an active research community that would fill a void in current scholarship in democratic governance by fostering research that is not only normatively and empirically sophisticated but also problem-driven and actionable.
The Ash Center’s Democracy Fellowship Program is the heart of the Democratic Governance Program’s efforts to build a new field of scholarship — and scholars — studying both the challenges to democratic governance and promising solutions.
For five years, the Democracy Fellowship Program has welcomed postdoctoral scholars as well as doctoral candidates, senior scholars, and practitioners from a variety of disciplines and perspectives. Ash Center Director Tony Saich and Academic Dean Archon Fung have just published a retrospective celebrating the Democracy Fellowship Program on the occasion of its fifth anniversary. The full report is available on the Ash Center website at ash.harvard.edu.
Building a Community
The retrospective highlights the unique intellectual community created by the Ash Center over the last five years. Democracy Fellows enjoy time and space away from teaching and other commitments that detract from their research and writing. Postdocs prepare a manuscript from their dissertations, write articles for submission to peer-reviewed journals, gather additional data, or develop and collaborate with others on new research projects. Senior scholars on sabbatical work on any number of research and writing projects. Doctoral students are typically refining or completing their dissertations.
At the heart of the Democracy Fellows Program and its intellectual community is the weekly seminar led by Academic Dean Fung. The weekly seminar is a master class in democratic governance that acts as a forum through which young scholars gain experience discussing world events and democratic theory in an interdisciplinary setting.
“Writing a dissertation is a solitary job,” writes Elena Fagotto (Transparency Fellow 2009–2012), Research Director of the Ash Center’s Transparency Policy Project. “So I cherished the seminars because we could all come together and explore deep philosophical questions… The variety of topics we discussed, the contribution each fellow brought, and Archon’s skillful way of steering the discussion made the seminars a truly enriching and memorable experience.”
Another fellow describes the experience as “The best forum out there for debating democracy.”
About the Fellows
Each year, the Democracy Fellows comprise an interdisciplinary cohort that draws outstanding scholars conducting research that illuminates aspects of democratic governance. We welcomed 44 Democracy Fellows in the program’s first five years, representing a diversity of institutions, regions, and research interests.
One fellow writes, “In my cohort we had scholars from the United States, Canada, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Egypt, Northern Ireland, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Finland, and many other places as well. We had economists, lawyers, political scientists, policy analysts, government officials, academics, philosophers, and activists. Our common interests revolve around the promises (and challenges) of democratic governance.”
Democracy Fellows have a robust set of research interests including innovations in participation; the mechanics and potential of public deliberation; understanding the influence of digital technology on democratic governance; the provision of public goods and services in a democratic society; the relationship between democratic governance and persistent problems such as injustice, discrimination, and inequality; the frontiers of democratic theory; and subnational politics and policymaking.
Impact on Scholarship and Practice
The retrospective highlights the impressive contributions that the global network of Democracy Fellows has made in these and other areas through robust scholarship, through instructing the next generation of political and civic leaders, and through practice.
Membership in this network affords an academic legitimacy and self-confidence. It also means that former Democracy Fellows are championing outstanding scholarship on democratic governance—with an emphasis on practical solutions—throughout the world’s most prestigious academic institutions.
One measure of the contributions of former Democracy Fellows is the volume and variety of their scholarship. Since leaving the Ash Center, this group has produced at least 135 articles, books, chapters, working papers, and policy reports for government and civic organizations.
Equally important are the contributions of former Democracy Fellows who are in professional roles on the frontlines of improving democratic governance in legislatures, think tanks, and development organizations across the globe.
Cristiano Ferri Soares de Faria (Visiting Fellow 2009–2010) is long-time director of the HackerLab in the Brazilian House of Representatives, where he has championed a number of pioneering and award-winning projects in leveraging digital technology to promote citizen voice and participation. Francisca Rojas (Transparency Fellow 2010–2013) is a Housing and Urban Development Specialist for the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington, DC and Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Democracy Fellows pursuing academic careers are also keeping a hand in practice. Quinton Mayne (Postdoctoral Fellow 2010–2012), Assistant Professor of Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School, is working with another Ash Center faculty member Jorrit de Jong on a novel Innovation Field Lab for the School’s students. This partnership with five Massachusetts cities deploys dedicated groups of students to examine urban problems in a focused and systematic way, providing technological solutions beneficial to the city and its residents.
The Democratic Governance Program’s ability to have an impact on fellows, imbuing a commitment to real-world solutions in their future career choices and scholarship, relies on meeting three primary objectives: identifying and attracting outstanding scholars committed to practical solutions, providing a unique intellectual environment, and building a global network. The Democracy Fellowship Program will continue to attract the brightest young and established scholars committed to improving the quality of democratic governance—and provide them with a unique, robust intellectual community.
Based on feedback from former fellows, we hope to engage more visiting senior scholars and senior faculty from across the University. This involvement would create more opportunities for younger scholars to benefit from individual mentoring in both their research and career development. Another initiative could be to help connect fellows to practitioners in their fields of interest, for example, government and civic leaders launching democratic innovations, for both research and instructional purposes.
Fellows have expressed a desire to be able to continue to share recent work, exchange ideas, and perhaps identify new opportunities for collaboration with other Democracy Fellows after their fellowships have ended. In some ways, this fifth anniversary of the Democracy Fellowship Program has offered a wonderful opportunity to reconnect with some former fellows, and to deepen ties with others, in the process of updating the fellows’ current information including publications and other accomplishments. It will serve as a solid foundation for maintaining and strengthening the global network of Democracy Fellows.