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November 2012


Slow Democracy: Rediscovering Community, Bringing Decision Making Back Home


by Susan Clark and Woden Teachout (Chelsea Green, 2012)


What are the big take-aways?


Riffing off the “slow food” concept of eating locally to promote health and sustainability, Susan Clark and Woden Teachout (former colleagues of mine from Woodbury College) make the case in Slow Democracy that local democratic decision making processes likewise lead to healthier, more sustainable communities.  As they write in the introduction (page xxiii):


[S]low democracy is not a call for longer meetings or more time between decisions.  Instead, it is a reminder of the care needed for full-blooded, empowered community decision making…[S]low democracy observes that we have moved increasingly toward centralization and privatization of public resources and decision making.  In the name of efficiency, we often give only lip service to citizens’ wisdom, and as a result, we wind up with unrepresentative, unsustainable decisions and a discouraged, democratically anemic citizenry.


Clark and Teachout say that there are three “key elements of democratic decision making” (page xxvi) and they devote entire chapters to each: inclusion (“ensuring broad, diverse public participation”), deliberation (“defining problems and weighing solutions through a public process based on sound information and respectful relationships”), and power (“defining a clear connection between citizen participation, public decisions, and action”).


Why did I like it?


While written by Vermont liberals, Slow Democracy is no lefty diatribe.  Quite the opposite.  It emphasizes the reasons for – and the cultural importance of – involving a wide range of political opinions in local decision making processes in order to create solid, long-lasting public policy (see the chapter on “Cultural Cognition and Slow Democracy”).  The book also argues that “slow democracy” is timely, given the technological tools that are now available and exploited by activists in the Millennial generation who tend to favor collaborative decision-making models, and the rise of “emergence” movements across the political spectrum – from the Tea Party to Occupy Wall Street.  Used thoughtfully, the authors assert, local deliberative dialogue processes foster understanding and even cooperation among polarized groups regarding some of the most controversial issues of our times: climate change, abortion and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (pages 131-135).


The book’s greatest strength is its rich and enlightening exploration of real-life “slow democracy” case studies from very diverse communities, reflecting an inspiring array of decision making techniques.  The case studies include a rural school consolidation challenge in Hacker Valley, West Virginia; a subsidized housing project in the Mill Creek neighborhood of Philadelphia; a water-quality issue in Gloucester, Massachusetts; a school redistricting triumph in Portsmouth, New Hampshire; a community engagement initiative from the city council’s office in Austin, Texas; additional examples from Chicago, Boulder, San Francisco, New York City, and many other U.S. locations, as well as cities in other countries from Denmark to China.


Note: I also liked the sparkling Foreword penned by prominent University of Vermont political science professor, Frank Bryan.  Few Forewords do at all what his does so well: offer both shrewd contextual analysis and irresistible provocation.  Don’t skip it.


In what situations would this be useful?


Many of the leaders I work with also hold positions of influence in their municipalities, churches, school groups and other community settings, in addition to their workplaces.  If you’re a leader looking for persuasive evidence to support your argument for why applying a local dialogue or decision-making process will help solve your local problem, Slow Democracy is a perfect resource.


Moreover, the book offers two excellent appendices with practical advice.  The first, starting on page 205, is a list of twenty pliable guidelines for implementing “slow democracy” in your community.  Some of the most powerful guidelines which, in my opinion, apply equally well to effective leadership in almost any transformation effort include: “Make strange bedfellows,” “Define your purpose, then define your process,” “If you already know the answer, don’t ask the question,” “Some things take a professional,” “Tell the story of power and change,” “Open up and let go,” “Come full circle” (evaluate results), and “Celebrate your success, and celebrate your community.”


The second appendix (pages 209-211) provides a selective “Slow Democracy Resource List” of recommended organizations and publications, including three different guides for facilitators.  It’s my observation that many leaders, simply by virtue of their titles, run a lot of meetings without having had any formal facilitation training.  If you’re one of them, think about investing in a guide or – better, yet – take a facilitation workshop or hire a professional facilitator.  And consider engaging a leadership coach to help you diversify your communication styles across all the different contexts in which you operate.


What other resources might “pair” well with it?


Throughout reading Slow Democracy, I was reminded again and again of Ronald Heifetz’ classic 1994 volume, Leadership Without Easy Answers (previously reviewed in the Leadership Library).  In it, he presages the authors’ contemporary “slow democracy” call-to-action by defining his theory that distinguishes between technical and adaptive leadership: the more unprecedented the leadership challenge, the greater the need for adaptive solutions rather than technical ones.  (A featured example in the book is President Lyndon B. Johnson’s approach to Civil Rights.)  Many of the process recommendations Heifetz makes for effectuating adaptive leadership on any scale – i.e. identifying the adaptive challenge, regulating distress, directing disciplined attention to the issues, and giving the work back to the people (Heifetz, pages 254-263) – anticipate those made by Clark and Teachout for local public decision making.


Years after Leadership Without Easy Answers, Heifetz and his colleagues produced a hefty handbook that might be of interest to a leader seeking a comprehensive resource for defining and leading the kinds transformations highlighted by Clark and Teachout: The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World (Harvard Business Press, 2009).


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