💊 Neighbourhood democracy – why we urgently need new models

Conventional democracy does not serve the community or neighbourhood level well. Mark McKergow and Jenny Clarke argue we must find alternative ways to facilitate inclusive action, support those seeking to make a difference (often with tiny resources), and build co-operation. Here, they set out key features of neighbourhood democracy, and suggest relevant practices as inspiration

In the UK (at least), the word ‘democracy’ implies the party-based oppositional systems we see at Westminster, the devolved nations, and in every town hall in the land. One group is in power and charged to get things done, another group opposes. Such systems are based on classical ideas of robust truth standing firm in the face of criticism; however much mud is slung, truth will prevail.

The shortcomings have rarely been clearer than in the past decade of polarisation. A deeply divided political landscape actively discourages co-operation between groups. The opposition want to take power, so they must make the others look bad. The governing side looks weak if they take up ideas from the opposition, who in turn look weak if they support a half-good idea.

Oppositional systems fail to support local co-operation

At neighbourhood level, among communities of 3,000–5,000 people, this form of governance just wouldn't work. Research finds that good neighbourhoods can enhance wellbeing, health, longevity, child raising, safety, security and care. There are usually no power structures at this level, little in the way of budgets, and usually no paid implementers.

At neighbourhood level, we need more constructive systems, which nurture and develop projects rather than ignoring and opposing them

For example, in projects to improve local wellbeing like big lunches, street activities and community events, members of the community do it for each other. Effort and participation are rare commodities which tend to build with encouragement and wither with criticism. We need more constructive systems, which nurture and develop projects rather than ignoring or opposing them.

Neighbourhood democracy: desirable features

Most community activities start with a local ‘spark’ or ‘connector’ who wants to do something to engage others. Rightly, such activities require the energy and dedication of individuals, who could probably act alone if they had the determination. You don’t need permission to be a good neighbour!

However, it would add to their capacities if these activities enjoyed express support of the neighbourhood. It would be good if there was a clear, well understood way for participants to gain this support.

We would like to see models developed that give clear backing to neighbourly initiatives. Some may be out there already in nascent form

We would like to see models developed that give clear backing to neighbourly initiatives. Indeed, such initiatives may be out there in nascent form already. Their aim would be to scaffold a system which:

  • Puts constructive engagement over destructive opposition
  • Pays attention to what people want to do, not what they don’t
  • Supports useful action over nay-saying obstructionism
  • Works by consent rather than voting, and by broad support rather than knife-edge majorities
  • Includes all citizens who want to contribute, rather than putting power in the hands of a few
  • Is led by a host or convenor rather than a directive leader/person in charge.

Some answers are already appearing

For decades, organisations have explored working in such a fashion. Sociocracy, for example, was first implemented by Kees Boeke and Betty Cadbury in the 1920s. This overarching methodology, based on circles and quaker practice, is now in its third iteration. Sociocracy's cousin Holacracy has useful things to offer, too.

However, these methodologies seem to us to be designed mostly for organisations and institutions. Their goal appears to be to achieve a particular end for certain stakeholders rather than to nurture a self-supporting community. They risk generating endless meetings rather than prioritising action. Even so, such methods' ways of working towards consent are, potentially, highly relevant.

Lean and Agile ways of organising are currently attracting much attention. Like Sociocracy, these methods embrace the world's inevitable change and flux, yet they also promote action and flexibility. There are useful practices here. And again, these modes were designed for processes with an external ‘customer’ rather than the mutual aid of a community.

An increasingly used idea is Host Leadership, which shows in detail how to lead by invitation rather than direction, and connection rather than instruction. As both a metaphor and a model, the skills of leading as a host rather than a hero seem to us to be a further key element.

Wanted – a simple and applicable framework

Open Space technology is a way of engaging groups in self-organising multi-threaded emergent dialogues. So far, we are impressed. With a skilled host, this structure, with its four rules and one law, can be set up in minutes. Open Space works well particularly in situations where issues are complex, passions run high and there are many possibilities. It gives a sense of space and freedom to talk which is quite special. Participants feel ‘blessed if they do, blessed if they don’t’. And yet this isn’t the whole answer, either. It seems to us that it is not possible to work in Open Space all the time; sometimes, a focused session is the best approach.

Political science needs to devise a simple format with clearly understood rules, which supports community co-action without becoming an oppositional system or a talking shop

There are also interesting processes from other cultures like the African Kgotla, which serve to build dialogue in conflict situations, albeit with a hierarchical element. In similar vein, various forms of Circle practice may also be relevant.

Suppose… we could devise a format or structure as simple as Open Space, with clearly understood rules, which supported community co-action without becoming either an oppositional system or a talking shop…

This would be a major step forward, both in promoting citizen community action and in pointing out ways of democracy other than power and voting.

Political scientists! Please step forward to help to scope and devise such systems.

💊 Ninth in a Loop series examining how political scientists, and citizens, can take practical steps to strengthen democracy

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.

Contributing Authors

photograph of Mark McKergow Mark McKergow Founder, Village In The City More by this author
photograph of Jenny Clarke Jenny Clarke Co-Director, Centre for Solutions Focus at Work More by this author

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