Voting is Not Enough

In the last presidential election, only 61.8 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot. Unsurprisingly, the 2014 midterms were even worse, with just 36.4 percent of eligible citizens voting – the worst turnout in any election cycle since World War II.

Those are the kind of numbers which make civic advocates despair.

The Editorial Board of the New York Times reported that the low turnout “was bad for Democrats, but it was even worse for democracy.” The Times went on to bemoan the causes of the record-low turnout: “apathy, anger and frustration at the relentlessly negative tone of the campaigns.”

But we should be wary of correlating increased voter turnout with increased civic health – voting is an important act in a healthy democracy, but a turn out rate is not enough to diagnose a civic ailment.

In Power and Powerlessness, John Gaventa develops a power-powerlessness model of voting.

In a coal mining valley of Appalachia, Gaventa is struck by how local elections are always battles between elites which never address or engage the poor, working people of the community:

Though intensely fought, the conflict which emerges into the local political arena is rarely substantive compared with what could emerge. The candidates do not raise questions potentially challenging to either Company or courthouse – such as why the locally derived wealth is not redistributed through taxation.

Gaventa documents how both public and private (eg, voting) challenges to existing power structures are forcefully shut down by those in power. Over time, these power structures become stronger and the fear of reprisal becomes ingrained. Those without power exhibit repeated behavior which would be perplexing to an outsider.

In one Company town, turnout rates would get as high as 100%. Voting day was a special day, where folks would dress up to participate. Then they’d go to to the ballot box and vote unanimously for the company man – a man who was actively engaged in the oppression of the people voting for him.

While “a host of studies in political science argue that the poor may not participate or may not participate effectively, because of low income, poor education, lack of information, and other factors of a socio-economic state scale,” Gaventa draws a different conclusion:

Factors such as low income, low education and low status may, in fact, be reflections of a common index of ‘vulnerability’ or social and economic dependency of a non-elite upon an elite. Through processes of coercive power, those most likely to challenge inequalities may be prevented from challenge…Over time, there may develop a routine of non-conflict within and about local politics – a routine which may, to the observer, appear as a fatalism found in ‘backwardness.’ As regards to voting…the phenomenon would be better understood as a product of power relations, such that actions of challenge – and even, over time, conceptions of such actions – by the powerless against the powerful become organized out the political milieu.

All of this is not to say that we shouldn’t talk about voting, but voting is far from enough. When we talk about voting, we should talk about power – and not just the desperate claim that one person’s vote has the power to make a difference. We should talk about how structures of power shape our very approach to voting.

In one talk at Frontiers of Democracy last week, Denise Merrill, Connecticut’s Secretary of the State, said that the number one reason people give for not voting is that no one asked them.

While perhaps we shouldn’t feel the need to send an engraved invitation to every member of our democracy inviting them to participate in it, the reality is…we do.

When I see low voting rates, I don’t see a people who are too apathetic or too stupid to vote, I see a people who have been taught – explicitly and implicitly – that they have no agency in this world. That their voices and their thoughts have no value.

And when we talk about voting, too often we reinforce this sense – after all, if one vote out of 3 million is all the power you have…that’s just a reminder of just how powerless you are


A New Land: What Kind of Government Should We Have? (NIFI Issue Guide)

The National Issues Forums Institute published the Issue Guide, A New Land: What Kind of Government Should We Have?, in 2015. This guide is to help facilitate deliberation the current and future state of the US union.

From the guide…

It is the spring of 1787. We are now iNIFI_NewLandn a critical period. Our new republic is unstable and the liberty we won just four years ago is threatened. We’ve lost the unity inspired by our fight against Britain. Trade is difficult and our physical safety is uncertain. There are conflicts within and threats from without.

The current state of affairs has sparked conversations in pubs and shops, town squares and farmyards. Everywhere, people are asking the same questions: What should we do? How will we survive? How can our hard-won liberty be sustained? The questions boil down to this: What kind of government should we have?

This historic decisions issue guide presents three options for deliberation:

Option One: “Strengthen the Current Partnership Among Equals”
The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union need to be amended. The current one-vote-per-state Confederation Congress assures that we are a union of equal members, but the current central government lacks the power to raise funds or make binding decisions. It needs to have the power to hold states accountable without impinging on their rights. We must figure out a workable balance that gives the central government more power and yet still respects each state’s autonomy.

Option Two: “Create a Strong Central Government”
To maintain our independence, we must ensure our stability. We need a strong central government to protect our liberty. Too much freedom at either the state or the personal level can be destructive. A republican form of federal government, with proportional representation from all of the states, guarantees that individual citizens will still have a say. A stronger central government in a new federal union of the states will also have the authority to safeguard our economic stability and physical security.

Option Three: “Let States Govern Themselves”
Now that we have our liberty, we should dissolve the Confederation and let the states govern themselves as independent republics. Local governance works best. We are too economically, geographically, and culturally diverse to form one nation. Each state has its own traditions of self-governance, some going back a century or more. Each has its own way of determining citizenship. We’ve proven we can successfully unite in the face of a common threat, and we can do it again if need be.

More about the NIFI Issue Guides
NIFI’s Issue Guides introduce participants to several choices or approaches to consider. Rather than conforming to any single public proposal, each choice reflects widely held concerns and principles. Panels of experts review manuscripts to make sure the choices are presented accurately and fairly. By intention, Issue Guides do not identify individuals or organizations with partisan labels, such as Democratic, Republican, conservative, or liberal. The goal is to present ideas in a fresh way that encourages readers to judge them on their merit.

Issue Guides are generally available in print or PDF download for a small fee ($2 to $4). All NIFI Issue Guides and associated tools can be accessed at

Follow on Twitter: @NIForums.

Resource Link:

Fun and Civic Work

Last week, I had the great pleasure of attending the 2015 Frontiers of Democracy conference. One theme that came up several times was fun.

In a session I facilitated, for example, I asked participants to share how they personally engage in civic work and then reflect on what they learned from each other’s approaches.

At the end of the session, one group reported that they’d had a quite engaging discussion about whether or not fun was required for sustainable civic impact.

Fun makes the work more enjoyable – making it easier to mobilize and engage others, and sustaining those who choose to take on the work. Fun brings people together, transforming a group of individual actors into a true community, capable of engaging in the work together.

But fun could also be superfluous, an add on that only works in some contexts, or even damaging – undermining the seriousness of an issue with frivolity.

We talked about gamification, using the tools of gaming to make civic experiences more fun.

We talked about the natural fun that comes about when people in a room simply like each other and enjoy each other’s company. One person described how much fun she has making signs or doing so-called boring work with a group she works with. The work may be dull, but being with the people is just fun.

There was also good discussion about whether fun was the right word – perhaps it was more of a public spiritedness we were looking for?

Later, in a conversation about engaging communities with city planning, someone else talked about the importance of engaging the arts – using music and dance to create a festive atmosphere. An event should be fun, so that community members would actually want to attend.

And finally, as the conference drew to a close, another person wondered if the concern about fun was actually a byproduct of the professionalization of civic work. If you feel like the host, you want to make sure your guests are having fun.

It strikes me – and perhaps I’ve been reading too much Wittgenstein – that we’re not talking about the same type of “fun” in all these scenarios.

There is certain type of forced fun, which does feel like a host trying to entertain guests. There can be a paternalistic danger in this approach, too – a tendency to say, “we’d better make civic work fun because that’s the only way we can get the people to do what is best for them.”

As if we aren’t people too. As if we do this work because we are somehow wiser or more self-aware.

The irony here, of course, is that at any good party the host is the only one worried about people having fun – everyone else is busy simply having it.

Perhaps that’s another type of fun – or a public spiritedness, if you will. When people come together, when people talk together and spend time together and simply get to know each other – that is fun. There’s no forced socializing or carefully constructed ice breakers, just people coming together.

And I think it’s only appropriate that I end with one of the panelists from my session. After this great discussion about different types of civic work, after this engaging debate about what is fun and whether or not it is required, he turned to me and smiled, saying simply:

That was fun.


Participate in IAF’s International Facilitation Week, Oct. 19-25

Every year, our good friends at the International Association of Facilitators (IAF) host something called International Facilitation Week – an event aimed at showcasing the power of facilitation to new and existing audiences and at creating a sense of community among facilitators and our groups worldwide – and we strongly encourage NCDD members to consider participating!

This year’s International Facilitation Week (IFW) will be celebrated from October 19th – 25th, 2015. Facilitators from around the world and across the NCDD network can celebrate IFW by organizing trainings or showcases, publishing articles or blog posts, beginning collaborations or projects – the list goes on. Basically, participate however you’d like to, and gain exposure for your work by the affiliation to IFW.

Here’s a bit of what IAF says about the Week and some of their suggestions for how you can participate:

The IAF is simply the catalyst for International Facilitation Week. The invitation to celebrate the week is open to everyone.

Generally, the Association holds its virtual Annual General Meeting during IFW, as well as a number of international live Twitter chats. We also announce our new inductees to the IAF Hall of Fame.  IAF regions and chapters hold numerous activities too, both virtual and face-to-face.

Here are some ideas to inspire your activities:

  • Publicise your best facilitation case studies  – now is the time to write those up and announce them on your own and your clients’ websites! Get creative – use video and podcasted interviews.
  • If you are an internal facilitator, encourage your employer to showcase how you use facilitation for the benefit of your organisation. Hold a “lunch and learn” or “coffee break case study” in your workplace during the week.
  • Organise a training or learning event with others who also work on collaboration, dialogue, mediation, conflict resolution and group process.
  • Set up an event for potential clients in which you showcase the benefits of facilitation. Need inspiration? Consider interviewing recipients of the Facilitation Impact Awards.
  • Offer free or discounted facilitation services to groups who could benefit from professional facilitation. Use IFW to announce a commitment to doing some new pro-bono work, or to release the results from some previous pro-bono work.
  • Approach your local school, college, university, teaching hospital or training providers to see if they’d like to collaborate on an IFW event or program.
  • Talk to your local or national health and social care organisations to discuss the possibility of a training or other facilitation event during the Week.
  • Use your networks – What other professional organisations do you belong to that might be interested in joining in celebrating IFW?
  • Make use of the media. Local papers and radio stations are may include coverage if given a strong local angle or link to issues currently in the news.
  • If you blog, make sure you write about facilitation in the run up to and during the Week. Think of an especially strong example or compelling facilitation story.

And of course, you can always come up with your own creative way to participate in IFW! The IAF keeps an international calendar of facilitation events taking place and encourages IFW participants to add their events to it. All you have to do is send the details of your event (who, what, where, when, and how) to

To learn more about International Facilitation Week, be sure to visit and check back frequently. We hope to see many of our NCDDers participate!

Participatory Budgeting in Bento Gonçalves

Preparing a write-up of this case will require knowledge of Portuguese & significant primary research (PBcensus 3 - requires significant research). Although there are no existing case studies in English on Bento Gonçalves, the city was surveyed in the Participatory Budgeting Census 2012 (Spada et al. 2012). Thus, many of...

Just Published: The Italian Edition of “Think Like a Commoner”

I am happy to report that the Italian translation of my book, Think Like a Commoner, has now been published. La Rinascita dei Commons: Successi e potenzialita del movimento globale a tutela dei beni comuni -- or The Rebirth of Commons:  Successes and Potential of the Global Movement for the Protection of Commons --was translated by Bernardo Parrella over the past year. 

My thanks to Bernardo for his initiative and tenacity in doing the translation and in finding a suitable publisher, Stampa Alternativa. And my thanks also to the pioneering Italian commons thinker and activist Ugo Mattei for writing the preface. 

Italy is at the vanguard of many commons innovations these days.  One sign of this is the first International Festival of the Commons (organized by Mattei), which will be held in Chieri, Italy, from July 9 to 12. I plan to attend, so perhaps I will see you there.

For the record, the Italian edition of Think Like a Commoner is the third translation, following the Polish and French translations. Translations into Spanish, Korean and Chinese are now pending.

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Michel Bauwens: Here’s What a Commons-Based Economy Looks Like

So what might a commons-based economy actually look like in its broadest dimensions, and how might we achieve it?  My colleague Michel Bauwens of the P2P Foundation offers a remarkably thoughtful and detailed explanation in a just-released YouTube talk, produced by FutureSharp. It’s not really a video – just Michel’s voiceover and a simple schematic chart – but the 20-minute talk does a great job of sketching the big-picture strategies that must be pursued if we are going to invent a new type of post-capitalist economy.

Michel focuses on the importance of three specific realms that are crucial to this new vision – ecological sustainability, open knowledge and social solidarity. Each is critical as a field of action for overturning the existing logic of market capitalism. 

Fortunately, there are many promising developments in each of these realms. Many parts of the environmental movement seek to go beyond the standard “market-oriented solutions.” There is a growing body of open source-inspired projects for software code, information, design and physical production, which is now spawning new types of global sharing of information with distributed local production. And there are many advocates and initiatives for social justice and fairness in the economy, such as cooperatives and the solidarity economy movement.

The problem, says Bauwens, is that these movements do not generally connect with each other or coordinate internationally. He therefore sees the need for “meta-economic networks” to bridge these fields of action. So, for example, we need “open cooperativism” enterprises to bridge open knowledge systems and cooperatives, so that open network (or licensed) systems are not simply dominated by large corporations in the way that Google, Uber and Airbnb have done. We also need to develop an “open source circular economy” to bridge the worlds of eco-sustainability and open knowledge.  We will never address major environmental problems if the technological and product solutions are based on proprietary knowledge; open circulation of knowledge can change that.

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