National League of Cities Release New Report Offering Practical Strategies for a Stronger Local Democracy

NHMA Staff

The information contained in this article is not intended as legal advice and may no longer be accurate due to changes in the law. Consult NHMA's legal services or your municipal attorney.

The National League of Cities (NLC) recently released a new report, Planning for Stronger Local Democracy:  A Field Guide for Local Officials, responding to the challenges of governing democratically. This tool kit, made possible with support from the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation, is designed to assist officials in strengthening local democracy by cultivating transparency and inclusivity with citizens and key allies with shared responsibilities and mutual accountability for addressing and solving problems.

According to the Report’s introduction, local officials seem to have reached a critical threshold in their work to strengthen local democracy. Reacting to a combination of factors, local governments are exploring ways to move from temporary public engagement efforts to more stable, durable foundations for democratic governance.  NLC defines democratic governance as “the art of governing a community in participatory, inclusive, deliberative, and collaborative ways.”

The Report lays out some of the key questions you might ask about democratic governance in your city or town – questions that will help you decide how to create a much stronger, more productive long-term relationship between citizens, local government and other organizations in your city or town. For some time, local officials have been faced with a kind of ‘Catch-22’ dilemma: public trust in government has declined steadily, while the active support and engagement of citizens has become increasingly critical for solving public problems. Today’s citizens are simply more vocal, knowledgeable, diverse, skilled and skeptical than the citizens of a generation ago. There are a number of macro-level trends at work here – rising levels of education, different attitudes toward authority, the emergence of the Internet – but it all adds to up to a basic shift in what citizens expect, and what they can contribute.

In just the last few years, cities and towns have been buffeted by a number of shifts that affect how local officials interact with the public. The recent recession has plunged many municipalities into fiscal crisis, and prompted local officials to engage citizens in thorny questions about how to balance revenues and services. At the same time, municipalities are sharing more local government data with citizens, who are better able to use and assess the information. Finally, the explosion of social media has meant that citizens have new venues to connect around their concerns and articulate their views about local governance and politics. These pressures present new challenges, but also new opportunities. Local officials are starting to think more seriously about how to combine hard-earned engagement lessons with innovations.

Members are encouraged to download this hands-on guide that lays out key questions for local governments to use to assess their city or town’s engagement capacities.  Also included are practical suggestions to finding out when and how to develop and enhance public participation processes.  The full toolkit can be downloaded from NLC’s website at