Power and leadership

Mending democracy at a local level

A recent trip to the United States by Matt Leach, our chief executive, has bolstered an idea at the very heart of Big Local – the need to build strong, engaged, communities, able to access resources and power.

As conflict, instability and uncertainty is paralysing our political establishment, we need to look further than the usual Whitehall-centric think-tanks and opinion formers for inspiration and ideas.

With that in mind, I found myself in Ohio with Richard Harries, from Local Trust’s sister organisation, Power to Change, journalist Hazel Sheffield and Danielle Walker-Palmour from the Friends Provident Foundation. It isn’t an obvious place to find social innovation – in the week that we were there, the state legislature moved forward with plans to completely deregulate the carrying of firearms in public and voted to make their abortion laws amongst the most repressive in the US.

What brought us to the former industrial centre of Cleveland was partially the opportunity to meet with other trusts and foundations at an international funders conference. But, more importantly, it provided a chance to visit the Democracy Collaborative – an organisation whose vision and ideas for a new way of managing local and national economies is starting to gain traction, both in the US and in the United Kingdom.

At the centre of the Democracy Collaborative’s agenda is a belief that we need to change our political and economic systems to strengthen community, devolve powers to cities and regions, broaden ownership and access to capital, and create more equitable and sustainable growth.Something that comes together under the slightly uncatchily titled mission, to English ears, at least, of creating a “Pluralist Commonwealth”.

The Pluralist Commonwealth project – also known by the slightly more accessible label “Community Sustaining System” – has already gained some traction in the UK. The Preston Model which has been much lauded as a demonstration of new ways in which local authorities and other publicly funded “anchor institutions” such as hospitals and universities can contribute to the growth of local economies is open in acknowledging the extent to which it draws inspiration from the Democracy Collaborative’s work in Cleveland, and in particular the way local anchor institutions have contributed to the growth and sustainability of the impressive Evergreen worker-owned businesses.

But as important to the emerging Pluralist Commonwealth concept is a recognition that fixing our broken systems can’t just rely on reforming local and national financial economies. We also need to mend our democracy, and that needs to start at a local level.

In his latest working paper for the Democracy Collaborative, which should be available later this month on their website, veteran political thinker and long term guardian of the Pluralist Commonwealth vision, Gar Alperovitz, highlights the importance of the parallel project of strengthening civic participation and democratic institutions. Quoting another important political influence, the late American political theorist Benjamin Barber, he notes his observation that:

“Strong democracy relies on participation in an evolving problem-solving community….[it is] literally forged through the act of public participation created through common deliberation and common action and the effect that deliberation and action have on interests, which change shape and direction when subjected to these participatory processes.”

He concludes that the process of civic participation is fundamental to the entire project of building a new, functional democracy, and establishing the values needed to underpin its success in the long term.

“If [our] communities and economic institutions…lack a culture of citizen initiative and [support] practice and attitudes that undermine a sense of community – that “we are all in it together” – it is difficult to see how the nation as a whole might ever achieve such values.”

The value of building strong, engaged, communities, able to access resources and power, is at the heart of Local Trust’s own mission and our groundbreaking Big Local programme. It underpins much of the thinking behind the Community Wealth Fund, being taken forward by broad range of civil society organisations, including Local Trust. And it has informed our recent work with OCSI, looking at the interface between community assets, civic capacity and social and economic outcomes. Later this year, we are delighted that Ted Howard, the President and co-founder of the Democracy Collaborative, will be joining us to continue the conversation about new ideas and approaches that are becoming increasingly important on both sides of the Atlantic.


You can join a growing alliance of voluntary sector organisations, independent funders and sector initiatives that are supporting the call for a Community Wealth Fund.