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Building Public Trust Through Collaborative Governance

We must invest substantive, long-term decision-making power in the public

At the national level, the connection between the public and government seems broken. Trust in government has been declining for decades, and in the most recent Edelman Trust Barometer survey, only 43 percent of Americans say they trust their government “to do what is right,” 10 percentage points lower than it was only five years ago. More than 60 percent of US voters think the country is on “the wrong track,” even at a moment of near full employment. 

The story reflected in polls is bleak at the national level, but in our cities and towns, we find different story: a rich vein of experimentation with more collaborative forms of public engagement, aimed at allowing people outside and inside of government to work together in designing policy. This is collaborative governance—also known as “co-governance”—and it seeks to disrupt the rigid dichotomy between those “in power” and those “outside of power.” A new name for something that has been emerging in practice over several decades, collaborative governance shifts power and builds trust by enabling government officials and advocates to see each other as collaborators with unique capacities and perspectives that support the other’s interests and positions. 

Examples range from participatory budgeting—such as the recently approved ballot initiative in Boston which will help distribute budgetary power and give residents a greater say in their city’s spending—to the creation of a permanent Citizens' Assembly in Paris, allowing Parisians to “truly participate in the public policies of the capital city.” These, alongside other experiments, were recently profiled in a recent report by New America’s Political Reform Program and in a special issue of The Forge. But although co-governance is a multifaceted and wide-ranging concept, the idea at its core is simple: to move public participation up Sherry Arnstein’s “Ladder of Citizen Participation,” raising the public through increasing levels of sustainable engagement. This sets co-governance apart from other forms of more temporary or issue-specific forms of democratic decision-making: ideally, co-governance creates lasting structures and more flexible relationships, ultimately helping create a positive feedback loop generating trust between residents and decision makers. This does not mean, of course, that decision-making is free of contestation or that immediate wins are always achieved, but rather that there are more nimble forms of power shifting and channels for deepening communication that develop for residents over time.

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