Cambridge is Next U.S. City Looking to Foster Engagement with Participatory Budgeting

shutterstock_99387902 (2)This post by Derek Pham begins our coverage of a new participatory budgeting initiative in the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts. PB, as it is commonly referred to, was piloted by the city of Boston last year and resulted in the funding of $1 million to capital projects. Across the country, much of the investment by cities in PB is driven by the belief that it can catalyze changes in the relationship between the government and the governed for the better. Through PB, Cambridge hopes to cultivate a more diverse and participatory culture in local politics. Continue reading

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Filed under Boston Participatory Budgeting, Cities, Innovation, Participation, Representation, Technology

Top Stories of 2014 on the Challenges to Democracy Blog

By Archon Fung and Tim Glynn-Burke


Errol Morris and Archon Fung discussing Morris’ film “The Unknown Known,” February 2014

2014 was full of noteworthy events and research when it came to the health of American democracy. From the President’s recent executive action on immigration to Thomas Piketty’s much discussed book on inequality, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, there has been plenty to think about. Continue reading

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Filed under Boston Participatory Budgeting, Decline of Popular Movements, First Chapter, Frontiers of Research, Gettysburg Project, Innovation, Participation, Representation, Technology

Toward More Effective and More Responsive City Governance

cities narrowThis post highlights new research from Ash Center faculty on important strategies for making cities more effective and responsive. As part of our Challenges to Democracy public dialogue series, one of the themes we are examining is how and why U.S. cities are succeeding or failing in realizing their democratic potential. Cities generate many of the key public policies that play a role in producing and reducing social exclusion and economic disparity. Yet as enduring patterns of segregation and social and economic inequality in the United States attest, all too often cities reveal our inability to use the democratic process to affirm and bridge differences for the common good. Is there a role for today’s most popular management strategies, from data analytics to PerformanceStat programs to innovation teams, in making city government not only more functional and efficient but also more participatory and responsive?
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Filed under Cities, Innovation, Lawrence, Massachusetts, Participation, Technology

Frontiers of Democracy Research: Is Today’s Anti-Immigrant Sentiment Always Racially Motivated?

jason aIn his paper (When) Race Matters: The Effect of Immigrant Race and Place on Support for Immigration Restriction, Ash Center Post-Doctoral Democracy Fellow Jason Anastasopoulos explores triggers of “racial threat.” He posits that several factors, including skin color and geographic proximity, induce racial threat and suggests the long-term implications of these factors on support for anti-immigration laws. The paper is part of a series of Ash Center Workshops on Immigration, Race, and Ethnicity (WIRE), a bi-monthly seminar style forum for Harvard and Boston area researchers and students working on topics of immigration, race and ethnicity from a diverse variety of perspectives. This semester’s workshop themes include Experiments on Race, Immigration, and Public Policy; Economic Impacts of Immigration and Immigration Policy; and Ethics of Immigration and Immigration Policy. Continue reading

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Filed under Expansion of Presidential Power, Frontiers of Research, Immigration & Citizenship, Representation

Exploring and Expanding Public Engagement through the Gettysburg Project

Angarita headshotThis post from HKS student Jennifer Angarita shares updates and reflections on the Gettysburg Project, a unique initiative of practitioners and scholars committed to revitalizing civic engagement. Professors Marshall Ganz and Archon Fung introduced the Gettysburg Project to students in the fall of 2013 in a session you can read about and view here, and we recently shared the first chapter of Gettysburg steering committee member Hahrie Han’s new book How Organizations Develop Activists. We will continue to update Challenges to Democracy readers as the Gettysburg Project progresses!

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Filed under Decline of Popular Movements, Gettysburg Project, Immigration & Citizenship, Participation, Representation

Closing the Civic Achievement Gap? Youth Leadership in Boston

boston pbThis post continues our ongoing coverage of Boston’s first in the nation youth participatory budgeting initiative, which is soon starting up its second round. Read more about Boston’s Youth Lead the Change initiative here.


By Tara Grillos

In No Citizen Left Behind, Meira Levinson asserts “that there is a profound civic achievement gap between non-white, poor, and/or immigrant youth, on the one hand, and white, wealthier, and/or native-born youth, on the other.” She goes on to provide some guidelines for effective civic education to close this gap, emphasizing the importance of civic knowledge, skills, attitudes and behaviors. Continue reading

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Filed under Boston Participatory Budgeting, Cities, In the News, Innovation, Participation, Technology

Congressional Gridlock and the Salience of Public Opinion

congress and prez cartoon largeLast fall, the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation hosted a discussion exploring the (then) recent federal government shutdown and the ever-souring relationship between the President and Congress. The talk, part of the Ash Center’s Challenges to Democracy series, featured two renowned Harvard Kennedy School professors Thomas Patterson and David King. Patterson’s research explores the interaction between government and the media. King is a senior lecturer in Public Policy and chair of Harvard’s Bi-Partisan Program for Newly Elected Members of the U.S. Congress. Continue reading

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Filed under All Checks, No Balance, Expansion of Presidential Power, In the News, Media and Journalism, Political Polarization, Representation

Frontiers of Democracy Research: The Co-existence of Censorship and Responsiveness in Chinese Government

J PanHarvard Academy Graduate Fellow and recent Ash Center Democracy Fellow Jennifer Pan studies the intersection of politics, citizen interaction, and service delivery in Chinese cities. In this post, Richa Mishra captures Pan’s latest work on the nature of the interactions between government officials and citizens—from censorship to organizing to political responsiveness—in a regime without electoral competition. To whom are local Chinese government officials responsive? While we might assume that top down influences dominate, it appears that bottom-up pressure from citizens plays a role as well. Continue reading

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Filed under Frontiers of Research, Participation, Representation, Technology

First Chapter: How Organizations Develop Activists by Hahrie Han

Hahrie Han_GroundbreakersBelow is an excerpt from the first chapter of Hahrie Han’s 2014 book, How Organizations Develop Activists: Civic Associations and Leadership in the 21st Century. An Associate Professor of Political Science at Wellesley College, Han studies civic associations and engagement, organizing, political activism, and health and environmental politics. Han is on the steering committee of The Gettysburg Project, a new initiative co-organized by the Ash Center that explores ways to improve the scope, diversity and impact of organizing and mobilizing the public. On September 24, 2014, Han will speak about How Organizations Develop Activists at the Ash Center along side Sarah Hodgdon of the Sierra Club and HKS professors Archon Fung and Jane Mansbridge as the kick-off to the second year of our Challenges to Democracy public dialogue series. Continue reading

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Filed under Decline of Popular Movements, First Chapter, Gettysburg Project, Participation, Representation, Technology

NCDD’s ‘Democracy for the Next Generation’ Conference Coming in October

ncdd conf 2.jpgHappy to share the following announcement from the National Coalition on Dialogue and Deliberation with Challenges to Democracy readers. We have shared a number of valuable ideas from NCDD on this blog, including the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality Community Forum, an annual review illustrating the robustness of the dialogue and deliberation community, and building the infrastructure to support public engagement and participation. Read more about their October conference and register here.
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Filed under Decline of Popular Movements, Participation, Representation, Technology

Lessons on Good Governance from the World’s Youngest Democracy

lhakpa2This post from Ash Center research fellow Lhakpa Bhuti explores the origins and impact of the government’s Gross National Happiness (GNH) policy on social, political and economic development in her home country of Bhutan. Well-being and happiness as legitimate and useful measures of government performance have been gaining traction in cities across the US, from Seattle, Washington to Somerville, Massachusetts. With a focus on the natural environment, Bhutan’s GNH policy and its GNH accounting might also offer novel solutions for addressing global warming. Bhuti suggests that these and other efforts to improve governance and even increase public engagement might learn lessons from Bhutan’s long-running GNH approach to improving both its political systems and actual policy outcomes.
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Filed under Corruption, In the News, Innovation, Representation

Building a Tradition of Organizing and Engagement Where None Exists: Stories from Japan

Lecture-by-MarshallThis post was originally published by the Leading Change Network. Author Kanoko Kamata is a recent Ash Fellow and Harvard Kennedy School graduate who returned to Japan build a culture and capacity for organizing and civic engagement in a country where little has traditionally existed. In the article below and elsewhere, Kamata has been recording and sharing her own work and the efforts of others along the way. Read for example her account of a local consensus-building effort on Yakushima Island and a commentary in the Japan Business Press in December 2012.

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Filed under Decline of Popular Movements, Innovation, Participation

Frontiers of Democracy Research: A Fresh Perspective on Lobbying and Political Access

mckinley_HLSIn this post, Richa Mishra explores Maggie McKinley’s work on The Madison Project, an online legislative crowd-sourcing platform, and its implications for the practice, function, and constitutional contours of federal lobbying. McKinley is a Climenko Fellow at Harvard Law School and recent Democracy Fellow at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation. She researches and writes on legislation, theories of interpretation, minority rights and representation, and the architecture of lawmaking institutions. McKinley hopes to move the current rhetoric around reform away from a focus on majority control and a demonization of lobbyists toward a more productive discussion of procedural injustice and political access. Continue reading


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TurboVote Set to Help Register 850,000 College Students in Florida to Vote

Hands- TechThis post by Seth Flaxman was originally published by The Democracy Fund. Flaxman is Co-Founder and Executive Director of Democracy Works, a nonprofit dedicated to the idea that voting should fit the way we live. Flaxman launched Democracy Works’ first major project, TurboVote, with fellow Harvard Kennedy School alumni Kathryn Peters in 2010.  This spring, Flaxman participated in our #Tech4Democracy panel discussion with Harvard students and alumni who are launching promising tech start-ups that find creative ways to strengthen democracy.
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Filed under In the News, Innovation, Participation, Representation, Technology

Frontiers of Democracy Research: How Public Deliberation Helps Democracies Adapt Over Time

didierIn this post, recent Ash Center Democracy Fellow Didier Caluwaerts reflects on the dynamic nature of public problems and political power and the challenges this “migration” creates in democratic societies. He also proposes possible solutions, including deliberative democracy models like the G1000 Citizens’ Summit Caluwaerts organized in a divided Belgium in 2011. Continue reading

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Filed under Frontiers of Research, Participation, Political Polarization

Is Humanity the Most Important Ingredient in Public Dialogue?

thumbnailOn April 22, 2014, Harvard Kennedy School Professor Archon Fung moderated a discussion between Joan Blades, co-founder of, and Mark Meckler, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots. The event was sponsored by the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation in collaboration with the John F. Kennedy, Jr. Forum. The conversation between Blades and Meckler, two groundbreaking and imaginative innovators who happen to fall on opposite ends of the political spectrum, was an extension of, an effort started by Blades to promote respectful, open, and meaningful political conversations among people and across ideological divisions. The following blog post recounts the evening’s highlights. You can watch the entire conversation by clicking on the YouTube link below. Continue reading

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Filed under In the News, Media and Journalism, Political Polarization

Are High Levels of Social Media Use by Chinese Government Agencies Increasing Local Participation?

ganli1Below is a first-hand account and reflection on the impact of social media on governance and participation in China from Li Gan, a recent graduate of Harvard Kennedy School and Ford Foundation Mason Fellow with the Ash Center. Prior to attending Harvard, Gan was chief editor of science and information technology for the popular online media platform Gan has also helped local governments in China to leverage social media to interact with local residents. Continue reading

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Filed under Participation, Representation, Technology

My Challenges: Raisa Carrasco Velez, Harvard Kennedy School Alumna and Ash Center Fellow

raisa2Asked to diagnose the health of American democracy, Raisa Carrasco Velez highlights the connection between inequality, education, opportunity and engagement in under-represented communities. Continue reading

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Filed under Cities, In the News, Lawrence, Massachusetts, My Challenges, Representation

What Happened When the City of Boston Asked Teenagers for Help With the Budget

HarvardAsh_2This post by Hollie Russon Gilman was originally published by Next City. We have been following the City of Boston’s first-in-the-nation youth participatory budgeting initiative all year. Read earlier posts from Russon Gilman and others here. Continue reading

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Filed under Boston Participatory Budgeting, Cities, In the News, Innovation, Participation, Representation, Technology

Can Local Innovations in Immigrant Integration Expand Our Notions of Democracy?

This post from Harvard Kennedy School student Isaac Lara recounts a recent panel discussion hosted by the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation exploring local innovations in immigrant integration and how they might be expanding our notions of American democracy. Continue reading

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Filed under Cities, Decline of Popular Movements, Immigration & Citizenship, Innovation, Participation, Representation