Operationalizing Democracy

In my last post reflecting on Will’s query of “how then can we create a system of regulation that protects public schools without marginalizing local communities?” I focused on the first part of that question, the concept of an overarching regulatory system. I noted that centralization of regulatory power is not necessarily a bad thing (though it certainly can be), and I also made the point that an attitude of openness to utilizing a diversity of regulatory methods is important, because there is most likely not one universal best way to govern all things at all levels.

In this post, I’d like to focus on the second, most important part of that question: the engagement and empowerment of local communities and individuals. Engaging local communities and individuals in decision-making processes is critical to ensuring that democracy is upheld.

But wait. Why do we even want to uphold democracy? Is democracy the best process for making decisions?

I’m not being facetious. We’re so browbeaten with the word ‘democracy’ that it’s become akin to the catch-all word ‘love‘; through overuse and diversification of usage, such embracing words become stand-ins for “something we agree is good that we can’t quite define.”

The simple version, I suppose, is that we cherish democracy as an ideal because we are aware that a concentration of power can lead to tyranny. The concept of a balance of power is integral to the founding of our nation, after all. But there’s more to it. As Cosma Shalizi and Henry Farrell argued in Cognitive Democracy, democracy can be seen as a superior mechanism (over markets and hierarchies) for tackling complex social problems, problems such as the achievement gap in public education, poverty, and mitigation of climate change.*

However, in order to best tackle such problems, Farrell and Shalizi caution that two features must be present: 1) facilitated communication between a diversity of viewpoints; and 2) relative equality in decision-making processes between affected actors.

Arguably, our own democracy fails to incorporate those features at an operational level, both historically and concurrently. Oftentimes, our democracy seems to function as determined by those narrow-minded interests that possess the deepest and most vested of pockets. The incidences in our nation’s history in which fuller acceptance of human and civil rights has occurred have only transpired due to an active and strong organization of aggressive interests, such as by unions and legal organizations.

I’m not a full-fledged cheerleader for technology, but I do believe that we are in the midst of a paradigm shift (cue world weary skeptics critiquing the use of this phrase) due to technology and social media. I don’t want to oversimplify complex processes, but we can witness this shift in the lessening power of those organizations embedded in bureaucratic, monolithic models such as the newspaper, music, and movie industries, and the rising power of smaller, agile, adaptive organizations. I say this cautiously, knowing that we are still on the cusp of any evolutionary, mature adaptation to the new paradigm. I think we would be hard pressed to think of models of any independent news organizations, for example, that have truly found a way to leverage new financing models and achieve financial stability (while we’re on that topic, please help support one of the best independent education news sites out there, GothamSchools). But without a doubt, things have changed, whether we like it or not. There’s no going back.

I see one great positive trend in all of this current disruption, and that is the growing empowerment of civil society through technology and social media. It is a reality in the business world, for example, that there is a much greater transparency and visibility, and thus a greater accountability to the public. This move towards greater transparency holds great potential for changing the responsiveness of those who govern, and a call for greater openness and sharing of data critical to accountable public service is also being made in education. Unfortunately, as Will and I continually point out on this blog, the data that is being collected and shared tends to be skewed in favor of a narrow-minded focus on shallow test scores and student value-added, to the detriment of student well-being and an enriching curriculum. And as Cedar Riener cautioned on Twitter in response to Felix Salmon’s article, the “problem is that convenient, cheap data does not always adhere to best goals. Common data narrows goals.”

I believe the empowerment of civil society through technology and social media provides us with an opportunity to make democratic decision-making a reality, thus providing a solution to the conundrum  Will posed in his question. I don’t know what such a mechanism might look like in actual operation, but here are some features that I believe are essential to its functioning:

  • Technology/social media and universal and speedy broadband access must be seen as a requisite to a functioning democracy, not as a bell and whistle
  • Prior to any decision-making process, there must be an information gathering phase in which a diversity of perspectives must be deliberately harnessed, listened to, and responded to. The data from this process, of course, must be publicly available and transparent
  • Everyday, local problems should be relegated to autonomous decision-making processes by local communities and individuals
  • Decision-making may still be subject to the standards of an editorial hierarchy, but those standards and hierarchies must be clear and transparent (vis-a-vis open source governance models)

*. [Let me just note here that I don’t necessarily subscribe to clear distinctions between democracy and hierarchy and markets; I see things as more intertwined, but for the purpose of this post, I’m running with it. And it should also be noted that Cosma Shalizi and Henry Farrell are talking about these things in relation to “macro institutions,” whatever that may mean.]


2 thoughts on “Operationalizing Democracy

  1. I think part of what makes this all so complicated is that, as you say, the word “democracy” gets overused so it's easy to forget what it actually means. In particular, we often confuse the mechanisms/processes of democracy (elections) with democracy (a culture or system of governance wherein people have power– which means control over the distribution of resources). So, it's very possible to have democratic decision-making processes in a culture/organization that is completely anti-democratic. The UFT, for example, has elections, but is extremely undemocratic.

    In a functioning democracy, hierarchies can exist and leaders can make quick decisions, knowing that the citizens/people are in a position to hold them accountable for those decisions. Creating a culture and system of governance like this in, for example, the public schools would be a long-term project– it would involve changing how information is distributed and how decisions are made. It would also involve some deeper cultural shifts wherein political leaders actually trusted and respected (not in the abstract, but as a matter of practice) their constituents so that those people actually felt participating in civic life was worthwhile.

    Lots to explore here, and we've got a long way to go.


  2. Will, great points. I agree on the importance of culture and respect. Which leads us to the next question, which is very important in the field of public education: how do we systematically bring about cultural shifts towards environments and practices that build trust and respect?


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