Blog Post

Cities Saving Democracy: What We Want to Know

June 21, 2021

Cities are often called laboratories of democracy, and for good reason. One, they are closest to real people and the daily problems real people face. The way cities solve these firsthand problems affects whether residents trust that their democracy works or not, whether they are truly heard in the process, and whether engagement in their community feels authentic or ultimately matters.

Cities have also long been the most trusted level of government on both sides of the Atlantic. That trust took a hit in 2020 for the first time in decades. They are still on top, but there is clearly work to do to regain the confidence of a shaken public recovering from a global pandemic.

For a couple decades, now, city governments have stepped ahead of their state and national partners in driving innovation of all sorts, including around things like using technology to expand who gets included in policymaking, creatively integrating migrants and refugees in numbers no one imagined possible, the transparent use of data to measure progress on community goals, and even an earlier understanding than most that equity must be central to their work in order to undo historical mistakes and meet the rightful expectations of the next generations.

Cities Saving Democracy: What We Want to Know

For example, Barcelona now has a director of democratic innovation at the Barcelona City Council who is also the cofounder of the project, a platform for participatory democracy. Typically creating a professional position and providing financial resources to the task signals not only a government priority but an expectation to get things done. Does such a position that elevates participation at the core of local governance add value that was missing before? We want to know.

Fort Collins, Colorado, a member of an upcoming democracy cohort, created a Futures Committee of their city council. The goal is to position the city for 30-plus years hence and integrate community desires with their available fiscal, social, and environmental data. Good stuff. But does such a framework also offer greater hope that current laws will more fully consider the impact on future generations? We want to know.

Minneapolis has been through hell and back (some would say the road back will take years) in the past twelve months after one of their police officers murdered George Floyd last Memorial Day. Are their changes to policing and the introduction of mental health response units within public safety going to be enough to restore the trust necessary for law enforcement to be effective in Minneapolis, or anywhere else that tries it? We want to know.

All these things, and more, will be part of what 12 cities—Amsterdam, Athens, Barcelona, Charlotte, Dublin, Frankfurt, Fort Collins, Minneapolis, Oklahoma City, Philadelphia, Seattle, and Warsaw—take up in the next 12 months in GMF’s Cities Fortifying Democracy project. The 60-person cohort—12 teams of five per city—is comprised of people who can illuminate the gravity of the challenges as well as the creative ideas under consideration to conquer them.

Why put a dozen cities from Europe and the United States together to discuss the demise of democracy and what they are doing, or should be doing, to strengthen its foundation on the ground in cities? After all, we don’t use the same local governing systems. We also don’t agree on the same approach to discussing race, don’t exercise the same authorities when it comes to local elections or policing, and don’t abide by the same set of laws or standards on everything from education to housing regulation. Heck, we often don’t even speak the same language.

But years of experience in putting local leaders and practitioners together from across the Atlantic assures us that none of that matters to what can be achieved through our trademark, roll-up-your-sleeves dialogues. And even more important, we do share something bigger that cuts through all these minor and overcomeable differences. We share a deep and long-held belief in the values of liberal democracy being the superior form of self-government by and for the people.

So in the coming year these cities will zero in on the democratic vulnerabilities and innovations in four key areas where local stakeholders can make a difference: governing, voting and elections, public safety and justice, and local journalism. The actions of citizens, government officials, and a variety of local stakeholders ultimately enrich or erode the institutions of democracy and to fortify them, where they have been weakened, will require renewed attention and intention. We’ll bring both.

Steven Bosacker is the Director of GMF Cities at the German Marshall Fund, and the lead on the yearlong Cities Fortifying Democracy project being launched June 2021.