Reinhard Mohn Prize 2011: Deliberative Democracy’s Brightest and Best
Bertelsmann Stiftung is honoring the most effective approaches to increasing civic engagement
This year, following a global search, the Bertelsmann Stiftung is honoring the most effective approaches to increasing civic engagement. Here we present the seven finalists for the 2011 Reinhard Mohn Prize.
For Troy Elliot, the situation is clear. “Hampton’s the best,” says the 19-year-old, referring to his hometown in southeastern Virginia in the United States. “It’s important for me to be a part of my community and its activities.” Troy, one of Hampton’s “youth planners,” is standing in the middle of a new teen center that he helped create together with city administrators and local youngsters. The center allows children and adolescents to practice their basketball skills, learn to dance and play pool. There’s even a small sound studio where they can use a range of instruments free of charge. All told, some 70 up-and-coming musicians make regular use of the space. What makes the studio unique is that it’s run by Hampton’s young people themselves.
This wasn’t always the case. Founded by the English in 1610, the idyllic city on the East Coast of the United States suffered a major economic downturn at the end of the 1980s. The result was unemployment, drug use and crime, especially among the young. Today’s mayor, Molly Ward, proudly describes the strategy Hampton adopted to overcome the crisis. “We wanted to know how everybody felt in order to make some long-term decisions and to move Hampton in the right direction. We needed a plan, so we wanted to know what everybody was thinking, not just a small group,” she says. For local government leaders that meant radically redefining who they were; instead of simply offering solutions, they became facilitators and supporters. Hampton developed an across-the-board system of deliberative governance to get the public involved, since it had become clear that workable solutions could not simply be decreed from an ivory tower.
Thanks to its novel approach developed over the past 20 years, Hampton is one of the finalists for this year’s Reinhard Mohn Prize, which is honoring initiatives and programs that do an exemplary job of strengthening democratic processes, drawing marginalized groups back into society and establishing new deliberative problem-solving methods.
A walk through the city’s neighborhoods makes clear the extent to which these criteria apply to Hampton. “We had a lot of crime and violence around here,” says Will Moffet, strolling near his home, “not to mention prostitution and drug deals that were taking place right out in the open. That’s when everyone came together and said ‘enough is enough.’” The 50-year-old has been active in the community for years -- successfully, it turns out, given the decrease in crime. “Kids today get involved to help make things better,” he says.
For City Manager Mary Bunting the approach is unique -- she calls it the “Hampton Way.” Through the years, civic engagement has become a fundamental part of how things are done in the city and is now accepted as a given by both local politicians and residents. “Everything we do, we now do using this process,” Bunting explains, “whether it’s youth work or neighborhood assistance, or even if we’re looking at future budgets or zoning issues.”
Young people in particular have a number of possibilities for getting involved, and “service learning” is a compulsory subject in all schools. Anyone who wants to do more can become part of the Hampton Youth Commission, a body made up of 24 young people that advises the city council in all policy areas. It even has its own budget for realizing projects like the teen center.
The youth commission and teen center are only a few examples of how people can participate in Hampton. The city’s strategy of investing in its citizens and thereby bringing about a paradigm shift has had a big impact: The degree to which Hampton’s residents trust their politicians and identify with their city is much higher than in peer communities, something that can be seen in the high level of voter turnout, especially among young people. Troy Elliot, the youth planner from the teen center, puts it succinctly. “What’s happening here is a revolution!” he says.
Other finalists at a glance:
The city of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in the US gets its citizens involved in policymaking decisions through “study circles.” The circles bring members of the public together in small facilitator-led groups to discuss complex issues, thereby giving administrative decisions a broad base. The first study circle was created in 1999 to respond to the problem of increased violence and bullying in schools.
The Australian city of Geraldton faces challenges of a completely different nature. Economic growth is expected to be considerable in coming years, and the city wants to get its citizens involved early on in strategic planning processes so they can help address business, social and environmental issues. Discussion groups have been formed to promote collaborative governance and to reduce boundaries between policymakers and the public.
British Columbia, Canada
As efforts in the Canadian province of British Columbia shows, even when deliberative democracy doesn’t result in the desired outcome, it can still be considered a success. In 2004, the provincial legislature created a “citizens’ assembly” to redesign the province’s first-past-the post electoral system, since it sometimes produced results that did not reflect the popular vote. The assembly’s delegates, chosen from the public, went through a multiphase process to examine various electoral systems, demonstrating that they were capable of both discussing complex issues and making the necessary decisions. Despite the enthusiastic participation of many of the province’s four million residents, the final proposal was not put into place, since it did not receive 60 percent of the vote in the required referendum.
The cornerstone for deliberative governance was laid in Brazil in 1993 when 20 years of military dictatorship came to an end. At the time, the country was home to large social divisions; simultaneously, people were looking forward to the promise of democracy and the chance to increase their standard of living. With 1.5 million inhabitants, the city of Recife in the state of Pernambuco faced financial problems that forced it to get citizens involved in a range of political processes. Today more than 100,000 people, including school students, participate through public forums and the Internet in development activities.
Belo Horizonte, Brazil
The second Brazilian initiative among this year’s finalists also began its activities at an early date. Home to some three million people, the city of Belo Horizonte in the state of Minas Gerais has allowed the public to participate in budgeting processes since 1993; since 2006, they can even do so online. Conferences, discussion forums and public councils have also been organized to address a range of topics. In order to get as many people involved in these events as possible, the city offers participants free transport, childcare and meals.
La Plata, Argentina
Since 2008, residents of La Plata, capital of the province of Buenos Aires, can help determine how the city’s finances are spent. In 2010, for example, the public had a say in how over 6.1 percent of La Plata’s investment spending -- more than €7.6 million -- was distributed. What is unique about the city’s approach is that not only can people join discussion forums to develop suggestions and vote, they can use their mobile phones to choose from a number of proposals. This easy access resulted in almost 50,000 people (out of 400,000 eligible voters) taking part in the budgetary process in 2010.
Text: Stefan Gehrke; Translation: Tim Schroder