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Review: Making Democracy Fun

My confession of the week: I hate electoral politics.

I hate the piles of mailers, attack ads, and clever, narrow messaging. I hate the fact that so much of it has to do with moving the same cadre of electeds into recently or not-yet vacated seats to continue an individual’s political career in an era of term limits.

To me, elections are more the punch-line of the deeper democracy of building our shared capacity for making informed decisions together –– about the economy, about the city, about our social safety nets. That, to me, is the business of democracy.

A lot of democracy is about preparation.

Voting is, yes, an important part. But voting without the deeper preparation that makes “informed decision-making” informed, voting without a collaborative culture that builds trust and alignment towards a long-term view, seems an empty promise in the face of our country’s widening economic and social divides.

I may be in good company. The turnout for this month’s municipal election in L.A. was 8.6%. City Council candidates won with 5 to 10,000 votes to represent a district of 250,000 people.

But truth be told, I showed up. I actually did participate. I voted. I walked for a candidate I believe in, who has proven to have integrity, accountability, and vision (Marquees Harris-Dawson). The campaign’s relentless and charming volunteers and well-organized operation made it all easy to do. And it was fun.

See, I’m not really a hater. I do care. I get it that Marquees will make a difference. He will fight for his district, and be an intelligent, progressive, and principled voice for the whole city on our 15-member city council.

However, when I think about what it would take for the responsible electeds to bail out the people instead of the banks, that long haul ahead seems a bit overwhelming.

But not, by any means, impossible. It is a question of will and skill. And a lot of preparation.  And that is the proposition offered by Josh Lerner in his recent book, with the deceptively simple title “Making Democracy Fun”.

Lerner’s book suggests that perhaps one way we might engage the 91.4% of the L.A. electorate (who didn’t show up to vote) is to, first and foremost, take their participation seriously (will), and then engage them in disarming, confidence-building, collaborative decision-making about serious matters in a fun way (skill).

Most of Lerner’s book is dedicated to the issue of skill. Lerner, is the Executive Director of The Participatory Budgeting Project, “a nonprofit organization that empowers communities to decide how to spend public money.” “Participatory Budgeting,” which began as an experiment by the Workers Party in Porto Alegre, Brazil has since propagated to 1500 projects around the world. The projects differ in scale and scope but all share a similar basic process that involves an allocation of a specific public budget (generally a portion of the City budget) for allocation by residents who brainstorm out ideas, develop proposals, and set priorities that are submitted to the government for implementation. Here’s a short video from the Participatory Budgeting Project about how that works:

Re-Inventing Democracy Through Participatory Budgeting from meerkatmedia on Vimeo.

A commitment to participatory budgeting exhibits democratic will. The practice of participatory budgeting brings up all manner of questions about skill. How and why will people turn up to participate again and again? How can we balance the different levels of education and knowledge that walk in the room? How can we engender trust –– between participants, between residents and city staff, or in the process as a whole?

Lerner’s answer: Games.

In the spirit of Jane McGonigal’s book Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World and James Paul Gee’s Good Video Games + Good Learning, Lerner asserts that “democracy is broken” –– no argument there –– and finds in games essential building-blocks for learning, engagement, and collaboration.

Lerner writes well, and his enthusiasm and authentic interest in democracy as a problem-to-be-solved is contagious. He deconstructs the design elements and principles that make games so engaging and addictive and then uses that same framework to reconstruct, in lively and colorful detail, his own experiences and observations of “participatory budgeting” projects in Rosario, Argentina and Toronto, Canada.

The results are neither simplistic nor romantic –– game design, like democracy, requires balance, elegance, and creative discipline, and Lerner illustrates successes and failures with a critical and respectful eye for his subject.

My favorite examples are the stories in which Lerner invents and adapts games himself. The setting here is the Toronto Community Housing’s participatory budgeting project which was having a bumpy time of it in the context of a merger between two public housing authorities, tenants frustrated with the slow pace of repairs and their lack of voice, and funding cuts that made budget decisions even more difficult than usual. Lerner used that situation as an opportunity to work with a team of tenants to work through some problems by observing and evaluating the existing process, and then redesigning it to make it work more than a game.

To do that, he created games. For example, when teams of tenants were dispatched to observe and report on participatory budget meetings, Lerner created What Changed? to help sharpen their observation skills. Before workshops, Lerner typically rearranged tables and chairs, posted flipcharts and signs, distributed handouts, etc. This time, at the start of the workshop he divided the tenants into three teams, and asked each team to list as many things as possible that had been changed in the room. As the points were tallied, the amount of work that goes into facilitation and the elements they should be looking for in participatory budgeting meetings became evident. Even the fact that different tenants interpreted the change in different ways became a teachable moment: the reason it was so important to write clear field notes.

When the tenants returned for a debrief of their building meetings, Lerner wanted them to share their observations in a safe space where they wouldn’t be judged, so he designed a game called “Help Sheila.” Lerner explains:

Sheila was a new tenant who would be joining the research team, and she needed a crash course in what we had learned. Oh, and Sheila was imaginary.

…I put an empty chair in the front of the room, and pointed to it. “This,” I announced, “is Sheila.” “Hi Sheila!” the tenants called out. I explained that Sheila was nervous about the research and desperate for advice, and asked if the tenants could share a few suggestions and lessons learned. Angela recommended to “pay attention to body language.” Dionne advised “Don’t let what you know interfere with what you are observing.” For Simone, the key was to “Keep moving…don’t stay in one spot. See the room from different angles.” Sheila was not the only one learning…

Even well designed games, however, were fraught with challenges –– unstable players and conditions, frequent interruptions, and scant preparation time –– the exigencies of everyday life. Lerner and his accomplices learned to set aside more time for design and play-testing, to rely on simple materials and flexible activities, and to take advantage of teachable moments.

Democracy, it turns out, like game design, is a difficult business that is as much driven by art as by rules.

Futurist and game designer Jane McGonigal describes how game play (and perhaps, even more, game design) allow us to practice some key skills that are needed to solve tomorrow’s problems. Included here are “eco-systems thinking” and pilot experimentation which McGonigal describes:

A good ecosystems thinker will study and learn how to anticipate the ways in which changes to one part of an ecosystem will impact other parts –– often in surprising and far-reaching ways…Pilot experimentation is the process of designing and running many small tests of different strategies and solutions in order to discover the best course of action to take…

Lerner, it seems, is a really good ecosystems thinker, and after reading his book, the value of participatory budgeting has become elevated in my mind as important preparation for feeding and seeding democracy towards its broadest and deepest potential.

2 Comments

  • Chrsitine Forte says:

    Thanks for the Lerner tip! I’m a big fan of McGonigal and Gee.

  • Gilda Haas says:

    Great, Christine. Still looking forward to visiting you in your natural habitat.

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